Mission

Luke 10:1-9

As I read through the surveys many of you filled out last month, I discovered a number of you feel the primary reason Knowlesville and Millville came together to form the UMC of the Abundant Harvest was so you could work together for growth.

It is not as clear as to how each of you is defining growth.

I suspect numbers of people attending church, increased financial resources through shared cost reductions and more people giving, as well as increased programs to meet the needs of the community, are some of the images you had as you voted to come together and as you gather around the table this morning.

In actuality, I suspect most are defining a growing “Church” as one reflecting positive increases in the statistical reports we are working to complete over the next couple of months.

The seventy sent out in Luke 10 are on a mission to declare the presence of the kingdom of God.  A mission to grow the church.

Included in their instructions are indications there will be some positive numbers to report from their work and some negative numbers.  No indication however that there will be an evaluation on the disciples’ success based on those numbers.

Just a few verses after this passage the disciples return with joyful reports of all they were able to accomplish including healing the sick and casting out demons and Jesus says, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.  However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Success defined by faith in the one who sent them, not faith in their accomplishments.

I found it interesting that Jesus sent the 70 on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

They were preparing those with whom they shared the news of a new way of seeing things, of connecting to God and with one another, to welcome in Jesus the Christ.

The transformation, the change in priorities and perceptions of those with whom they shared their experiences, ultimately came through Christ.

They were responsible for proclaiming God’s story of salvation, for offering healing and peace.  They were not responsible for the willingness of those they met to receive the gift they offered.  In fact if they offered the gift of peace and it wasn’t received, they were instructed to take it back.

You can bring the most beautiful, moist, flavorful chocolate cake to the church picnic, but not everyone will receive it with the same enthusiasm.  There may be a variety of reasons the cake is not accepted: allergies, health induced restrictions, individual taste, etc.

The same is true of when we share the news that we have been touched by the Savior and now nothing is the same.

Not everyone accepts the gift of which we speak, and for many reasons:

they don’t feel a need for God in their lives,

they are doing just fine

they have come to distrust the message because so many of the messengers with whom

they have come in contact say one thing and live another;

they have experienced physical and mental pain as a result of a person, or persons in a church setting.

they believe faith forces them to give up things they enjoy.

But our responsibility is only to offer and to live it, how it is received is between God and the person to whom we offer it.

Despite the reality that not everyone is prepared to respond to what is shared, countless others are feeling unworthy, unloved, and on the outside.

They have lost hope.  They are hurting alone and are ready to hear and respond to the stories of faith we share.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” or as The Message shares: “What a huge harvest! And how few the harvest hands. So on your knees; ask the God of the Harvest to send harvest hands.”

Your congregation’s name proclaims it: there is an Abundant Harvest.

You are among the harvest hands and those you pray for, but haven’t met yet, will join in the work.

The disciples were sent out by twos.  A kind of buddy system.  It is possible that more ground would have been covered if they went out one by one, but in joining together their ability to fulfill the mission was strengthened.

Together they brought different stories of how this Jesus was changing their lives.  We often identify more easily and understand more readily if the one with whom we are speaking understands some of the aspects of our lives.  Together they brought different ways of sharing the message.  We know from studies that we all learn in different ways: some from hearing others from seeing, some in a linear way and others abstractly.

Together they could challenge each other.  Push each other to remember what they learned from Jesus, to trust the instructions, to stay focused.  To remember the urgency and importance of what they were called to do.

Together they could encourage one another.  There had to be times when they found a series of homes that wouldn’t receive them, that the road was rugged and the food not what they hoped for, when it seemed few understood what it meant that the kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus was clear that they were on a dangerous journey, dependent on God and others.  Sharing their faith experiences, tapping into each other’s strengths, praying together, was critical to their successful mission.

Recently a group of college-age girls ran from San Francisco to Balitmore Maryland to raise awareness and money for Cancer research.  Each girl ran a total of 400 miles.  They went out in pairs, a different combination each time they ran.  When they began they knew very little about each other.  Here is what one runner said the night before they finished the run.

“We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve danced, sang and fell a lot, we’ve ran and motivated, we’ve had good days and we’ve had bad days. But more than anything, we’ve become a family. We made 26 life long friends and gained a support group like no other. And even more important than that, we have touched the lives of those around us, whether it be loved ones or strangers.

“We have successfully raised an incredible amount of money and awareness for the cancer community. I could go on and on, but I’ll end it on a happy note: this has been the most life changing experience I’ve ever had; I am beyond blessed for this opportunity; I’ve learned countless life lessons; and I’m extremely proud of my 26 teammates for being the incredible people that they all are. Endless thank yous to everyone who believed in me along my journey!”

When we begin to report on our mission of growth – if it is to introduce a life-changing, life-giving, savior, to those who are hungry to hear it – it should sound a lot like this runner’s joyful summary.

Listening to the instructions to the 70 can help us get where we need to be:

We need to be in this together – members of this faith community combining our strengths to take the message to those hungry to hear it, fully relying on God to provide the resources and the growth, understanding it may not look anything like what we think it should.  We cannot expect to pray and have them show up at the front door of our worship centers.  Jesus sent the 70 out into where the people were.

We need to remember all our resources are God’s and we are stewards.  The 12, and now the 70, were directed to go out without any financial resources.  Those receiving the gift of their message were expected to provide for their needs.  The disciples were providing something the communities into which they went needed, and the community sustained them.

An exchange not unlike all of us experience.  We provide talents, strengths, knowledge, time, to meet the needs of our communities by helping produce products, growing and selling food, teaching, designing, organizing, cooking, baking, serving, protecting…   and the community sustains us by providing financial resources, and in turn we sustain others in the community by providing financial resources for their contributions to the community needs.  God provided the necessary resources through members of the community.

We need to leave our baggage at home.  That includes leaving our egos:  our “we’ve always done it this way,” “Here is my line in the sand,” “my corner of the world evaluations,” “this is our money attitudes,” behind.  Jesus calls us to be open to new things, new ways of connecting with others, to new food.

Many who are hungry for the Bread of Life don’t recognize that we offer it in our faith communities.  They hear the news of Jesus Christ, are drawn to it, but don’t witness it in the lives of those proclaiming it.  It is one of the number one reasons people give for not attending any church even when they say they feel they are spiritual.

As we begin our work together to define the mission you have named as growth and to go out as the 70 did, we need to self-check to see if what others see in us is a reflection of Jesus; if we receive others in love, if we leave our baggage behind, if we remember we are saved by God’s grace and not by what we are able to accomplish in His name, and if we walk with God humbly, joyful to be on the journey.

Early in this series we noted that God’s invitation to the table has resonated throughout God’s story. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and God sees us all as very good.  Everyone is invited, everyone is loved, worthy in God’s eyes.

We are the 70, sent out in pairs, to welcome people into the kingdom, to tell people they matter to God and they matter to us, loved in unconditional ways.  It is challenging, dangerous work.  There are many who can’t or won’t hear, and those who actively work against our sharing the message.

We can’t do the work alone.  We need God and each other.  We need to be open to the Spirit moving among us in new ways.

One of you wrote of a hope that the UMC of the Abundant Harvest can be for this community the hands and feet for Christ, acting as advocates for those people/ families/ communities that are struggling and by showing our love and the love of Jesus can reach everyone… showing, rather than just saying, that we are an open, caring, group of people, that love in spite of our differences, breaking down barriers, to bring people to Jesus. 

That makes at least two of us.

I believe that in the story of the 70 we have assurance that this vision is possible.  I hope you do as well.

“Loaves and fishes” resources

One thing that many in the world perceive they lack is resources.  Resources to have the cars, houses, education, clothes, and vacations we are convinced we need.  Resources to move forward on that one great idea we know will change the world, at least our corner of it.  Resources to make a difference.

In some parts of the world that perception is a reality.  Adequate housing, water, and energy are difficult to obtain, a good education or safe neighborhood only a dream.

It has been interesting watching the Olympics in Brazil.  Ken and I visited there as construction on the stadiums was in its early stages.  Resources were a significant issue as work to prepare for this world event began.

People living in the poorest communities of the country shared their pain and frustration that while the government did not have resources to help provide municipal sewer and water, and the utilities didn’t have the resources to bring power to their neighborhoods, there were sufficient resources to construct the infrastructure needed to welcome the games.

We walked through some of these neighborhoods where raw sewage ran down an open canal, garbage stay piled in the sites designated for pickup, water was collected on rooftops because no water lines were available to service the homes.  We witnessed poles with a web of electric wires as families tapped into transmission lines to bring power to their homes.  We heard from groups who organize programs to make sure educational opportunities were available to many for whom even public education is not accessible.

Resources were also an issue for a friend of ours who took us to dinner while we were there.  This native of Brazil was an exchange student at the high school my husband and I attended.  Both he and his wife are well educated and successful, they live in a beautiful neighborhood.  They have a boat, a summer and winter home, and sent their children to the best schools.  Yet as the discussion turned to the upcoming World Cup and Olympics and all of the stadiums under construction, they, like those in the poorer sections of the country, raised concerns over the expenditure of so many funds to build venues that our friend deemed “unsustainable.”

Two very different financial realities, both identifying a problem with the allocation of resources in their country.

Resources are an issue in this morning’s passages from Luke 9.

The twelve disciples are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  Jesus instructs them to take nothing with them.  No means of protection, no suitcase, no food or money, not even an extra set of clothes.  To head out to live out what they learned journeying with Jesus, equipped solely with what was in their hearts and minds with only the clothes on their backs.

They are completely dependent on those who welcome them in for food, shelter, and other basis needs.  They are completely dependent on God for their skills in sharing what they know of Jesus and in healing those who needed healing.  No one able to brag about what they did on their own, only able to report on how God was working through them.

That report seemed to be enthusiastic and filled with information that led Jesus to call them away from the crowds to talk about their experience and to get some rest.  No indication that doing what Jesus sent them to do was curtailed in any way by the fact they went without what we would consider important resources.  No indication they were hindered in their work by any shortage of resources.

Also heading out without provisions, extra clothes, and an overnight bag, are those in the crowd who learn where Jesus is headed and get there before him.  They come hungry to hear what he has to say, seemingly forgetting to make any provisions for being away from home past mealtime.

It is interesting then, that those who had experienced being fully dependent on God to provide what is needed for them to physically and spiritually share the Kingdom of God and to cure people of their diseases, aren’t expecting Jesus to do the same for the thousands gathered to hear his message.

Those in the crowd were likely caught up in the excitement of an opportunity to hear this man who brings a message unlike anything they have heard before.  They act quickly to take advantage of what they see as an opportunity of a lifetime, not worrying about food or shelter.  The disciples, who care deeply for those in the crowd, offer some logical solutions to the crowd’s lack of resources to have a meal before their long, by foot, journey back to their homes.

One suggestion – send them off to nearby communities to find food and shelter if they need it for the night.

One solution – reported as impossible from the onset, was to go out and purchase food for everyone.

Both were not viable.  Surrounding communities could not have handled the magnitude of this crowd and financial resources to buy enough food, if it was even available in that quantity in the nearby villages, would total months of wages.  Not a likely amount of money in Jesus’ treasury.

They do survey the resources available to them onsite:  Five loaves and two fish.  Again, not a viable solution for 5,000 men and an unknown number of women and children.

Having just returned from a God directed trip to connect people with the Kingdom of God, knowing they went with nothing, and returned healthy, clothed, and filled with stories of wonderful experiences on the road, the Disciples had the best resources for knowing Jesus can handled anything that comes along.  But they look to the earthly, this is how we know how to get it done, resources.

It is when they present what resources are available, the five loaves and two fish that the miracle happens.  Jesus takes what they have, and multiples it, not by just a little, but by more than enough to meet the needs of all those now sitting in groups of fifty around him.

We find this taking, blessing, and breaking of bread account in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the only miracle recorded in all four.  Maybe repeated because like the disciples, even when we personally experience God providing just what we need to do whatever we are called to do, we are quick to look at the solutions we have used before, rather than looking for the new ways God is resourcing us.

Maybe repeated because we need to be reminded we face situations everyday for which our resources are completely inadequate, but for which God already has a plan, a method, and a way to accomplish anything we are called to live into as we share God’s Kingdom.

Resources are something we will discuss as we discern where God is currently calling The United Methodist Church of the Abundant Harvest.  We will gather data the way we know how:  looking at financial records, evaluating overall giving patterns, compiling the building maintenance and usage needs, setting priorities.

Likely we will count our loaves and fishes and wonder how can we answer this call to share the Kingdom of God with our neighbors and to bring healing to a hurting and broken world.

We may even surface conversations similar to those the disciples had.  Thinking we need to send the people with whom we are called to serve to another village or church, one we think has better resources.  Wondering if there is any way to gather the funds needed to go out and buy the stuff we need to complete the job.

With the building of the infrastructure to host the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil there are many “resources” perspectives.  The “government perspective”, let’s showcase this country, highlight all of the great things here.  It will make us look important, maybe even draw more tourists in the future and build our economy.  The “more affluent, but not overtly rich”, citizens’ perspective that taxing them to build unsustainable structures is not a good use of their resources.  The “trying to provide just the basic necessities for my family” perspective, that spending money on buildings that do not improve the quality of life for all citizens, when there are so many needs, is unjust.

As we discern the resources needed and the resources available to live into the ministry we hear God calling us to, there will be a variety of perspectives.  This passage provides us with the resources to find God’s way for us to use those perspectives in positive and meaningful ways.

The disciples equipped themselves at the feet of Jesus, listening and questioning, recognizing the need to spend time talking with their leader.

The disciples, didn’t always get it right, but when they relied on God and not on their own ability to get things done, they had amazing experiences, and were able to do that which God called them to do.

Jesus is always there, patiently and lovingly ready to show us yet again that God has provided all we need to get through any circumstances in our lives, to be the neighbors we are called to be, to serve in the ways we are uniquely called to serve.

In the end, everyone is feed, not just enough to get by, but enough to fill us up with leftovers to spare.

As we begin to form how we organize the groups who will work together to move Abundant Harvest toward that goal – an abundant harvest – we will implement some of this passage.  My hope is our resources of time will be maximized in organizational structures that keep us informed, in dialogue, and focused on sharing the Kingdom.

My hope is that every meeting we have this year will have a time of sitting at the feet of Jesus, making prayer and devotions an integral part of our work together.  I will do my part to help develop agendas that not only allow for this time of spiritual development, but time to do our work in meaningful ways without going much over an hour.

We already have a long list of resources in this congregation.  Gifts and graces abound, a love for God and genuine desire to be increasingly like-minded with Christ are evident in all of you.  There are financial resources available here: some from tithes and gifts, some from volunteer hours given with a sense of joy and praise for God.  There are areas where we all might feel a bit as if we have five loaves and two fish with over five thousand people to feed.

We may need a reminder now and again that Jesus sometimes asks us to leave everything behind, our staff (those things that help us feel in control); our bag (all those things that distract us from God’s purpose for our lives together), our bread and our money (our tendency to hold things back we shouldn’t, out of fear we won’t have enough for ourselves) our extra tunic (the stuff that allows us to think we can make it on our own or that allows us to hold uncomfortable change at bay.)

As we identify the specific ministries to which we are called to over the next few years and take a methodical look at resources and structures we have to bring to the table, Jesus will multiple our resources to meet the needs of his people if we act with faith and not fear.

It can be overwhelming to look at hundreds of people needing to experience God’s grace in their lives, feeling as if we have too little to give to make a difference.  Imagine the view from the perspective of the twelve Disciples.

Perspective is often the thing that identifies where the resources are that meet the needs of our work together for the Kingdom of God.   Christ’s perspective is the perspective that brings it all together in new and life-giving ways.

The Leonard Sweet/Frank Viola book “Jesus Speaks: Learning to recognize and respond to the Lord’s voice” just came out this week.  It is filled with ways to listen, evaluate, and act and will likely be a base for some of our devotional work this fall.

I look forward to learning more about God’s call on our congregation and exploring how we can best use all the loaves and fish you bring to the table.  I hope you do as well

In the breaking of the bread

Luke 24:28-36

Whenever there is news of a major storm it seems the first aisle in the grocery store to be emptied is the bread aisle, with milk, eggs, and peanut butter a close second.

Many of the healthy afterschool snack ideas circulating as families start preparing for Fall include some type of bread.

Bread in the form of freshly baked rolls, bread sticks, or warm slices of fresh rye, sour dough, Italian, or corn bread often accompany meals in our favorite restaurants.

Bread with peanut butter and jelly is usually acceptable to even the pickiest of eaters and can be the answer to dinner when everyone’s too tired to cook or are headed out the door to sports practice, 4-H club, a meeting, or other activity.

Toast is a standard foundation for a quick healthy breakfast and holiday meals are always more special with the transformation of this basic food into stuffing and bread pudding.

Some form of bread is often on our tables.  Throughout the world, if resources have depleted to the point there isn’t even bread on the table, hope for sustaining life is gone.

Bread is the staff of life, today, as it has been throughout the ages.  Because of its symbolic relationship to life, breaking rather than cutting bread is an ancient custom which continues in some faith communities today.

We have talked about bread during this series of messages on coming to the table and here we find it again.  Jesus revealed to those who should have recognized him, in the breaking of the bread.

There are many ways to look at this passage, you have heard many of them over the years, as this is a common passage to share on Easter.  The context of this encounter is the day the followers of Jesus find an empty tomb and begin to try to make sense of all that has happened.

This morning I invite us to look at the passage through the perception of the bread.

Before our senses can take in the presence of bread at our table, ingredients must be brought together in the correct proportion and order.

Here we find Cleopas and his companion, whom some think was his wife Mary who was at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion.  They seem stressed and uncertain, possibly overwhelmed by their experiences.  They are talking and discussing what has taken place over the previous few days and are trying to make sense of it all.  Maybe the kind of conversation your families have on the way home from a significant event in your lives.

We find that, in some ways, these two followers of Jesus are trying to taste the bread without pulling together all of the ingredients.

Jesus comes close and begins to walk with them.  They don’t recognize him.  We hear that “their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.”  I don’t think this necessarily means there was Divine intervention that kept them from knowing who he was.

They were preoccupied with many “what does this mean?” questions and personal disappointment that this leader, who they believed would free them in a political way, was no longer in a position to do so.

Their last view of their friend and rabbi was one of a beaten up, bloodied, life-less man.  Walking with them was Jesus in his glorified body.  He didn’t come to them in the condition someone who had hung on a cross until death would come.  They weren’t looking for him and so couldn’t see Him.  His face may have been recognizable, but so many circumstances putting him out of context and distracting them may have been the reason their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.

I suspect that most of us have walked by someone on the street, distracted by the things we are trying to accomplish, the appointment we are trying to keep, the conversation we just had, and don’t recognize the person until they call out our name to say hello.

Jesus doesn’t acknowledge he knows them, and Cleopas and Mary bring this stranger up to speed on the events of the week, not realizing the one they are updating is the one who lived it all.  Then Jesus, understanding they haven’t put all the ingredients together, begins to share the recipe and beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

The right ingredients, brought together in the proper proportion and timing, mixed together to bring the Bread of Life to the table, as recorded in scripture.  A complete recipe of God’s plan to provide us with bread which will satisfy and bring us abundant life.

Something in this conversation drew the couple to Jesus.  There is no indication they were put off by the frustration Jesus expresses as he begins his teaching with the words, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  They invite him to stay for a meal.  Not a polite invitation, but an urging plea for him to stay with them, to share table with them, to continue the conversation.

The ingredients pulled and pushed together, the bread is exposed to the heat which releases its wonderful aroma.  Whether over an open fire and tucked into a stone oven, the sense of smell is treated to the odor promising to deliciously end their hunger.

Then the Bread of Life holds the warm, fragrant, loaf in His hands.  The One broken for them and for us, holding the bread, blessing it, breaking it.  Scripture revealed in the breaking of the bread in their presence.  Their Savior as the one who ends their spiritual hunger, who frees them from their sin, who brings them life filled with hope, becomes recognizable to them in the breaking of the bread.

The staple of physical life revealed as the staple of spiritual life.

Context may have factored into their recognition of Jesus as he did what he had done in their presence throughout his ministry.  He took bread, blessed it, broke it and handed to others to share.  The familiar mannerisms, actions, tone of voice, words opening their eyes.   The meal seems to end in that moment, as Jesus disappears from their physical presence as soon as they recognize him.  In reality I believe, the meal goes on, gathering all who accept the invitation to come to the table throughout the ages.

It had already been a long, difficult week for Cleopas and Mary – good night’s sleep and leisurely meal more of a necessity than a desire.  Yet the bread broken in their presence by their risen Lord was too good to keep to themselves, too important to let them sleep on what was revealed to them.

They get back on the road, travel  hours by foot to share the bread with others.  In turn, others have experienced the presence of the risen Christ through discussions of spiritual things and in the sharing of the common meal of Holy Communion.  Bread held, blessed, and broken so our eyes may see Christ as He is revealed to us through scripture and the faith stories of those who have witnessed His presence.

On the days when I am frustrated with how things are going.  When relationships are strained or broken, when a direction I was sure God was leading ends up at a brick wall, when finances are strained or health concerns surface, when it seems there is way too much to do and too little time to do it, I think Jesus calls to me with the words, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[e] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

How foolish I am that I don’t remember all the ingredients, the easy to handle as well as the messy ingredients, are necessary to the story.  That God is faithful, all of Scripture reveals that faithfulness; That Jesus has it handled, all of Scripture points to the understanding that Christ has us covered with Grace that frees us from our bondage to sin and fills us with hope;  That we are all welcome at the table, to share in the meal that comes from the breaking of the bread

Jesus the Christ walks with us today.  Sits at these tables with us.  He is holding the bread of life in his hands, offering it to us.

Imagine that temperatures would allowed me to bake this loaf in this kitchen this morning, that the room is filled with the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread, that we are hungry to taste that which we know will satisfy all of our senses.

To receive this nourishment, it must be broken, pieces torn off and shared.  To recognize the risen Lord, we must open the loaf of scripture and prayer-filled conversation, break it apart, and share it.
When we see Jesus glorified, recognize how the ingredients, the story, come together and see how each one of us is part of that story through Christ, we recognize how in partaking of the loaf, we experience God’s grace and are energized to share the broken bread with others.  It is a bread that not only feeds us, but transforms us.  This broken bread will never run out, we can share it as much as we can and there will still be more than enough for each of us and for all those with whom we share it.
As we share at the table today, I pray Christ will be revealed to us in new ways and we will be energized to share the grace we experience with others in all places and situations.  Filled with joy that cannot be contained and which pushes us to action, we can offer the hope and love around all the tables of our lives.   Amen

The Unexpected Guest

Jericho was situated in the valley with an estimated twelve thousand priests and Levites living there.  Twice the population of Medina, NY.  With narrow streets and the potential for much of the community coming out see this rabbi, about whom they had heard amazing things, this gathering could have drawn thousands of people together in a very tight space.

Imagine, we are in the midst of this crowd with Zacchaeus.  There are people on every side of us, all pushing to get closer to this teacher, this miracle worker who challenges religious leaders and offers hope-filled stories everywhere he goes – in the synagogue and on the seashore –  walking from place to place and sitting at the dinner table.

The noise of the crowd is deafening, the heat and odor of so many people in such close proximity overwhelming.  Our chances of hearing or seeing much, minimal at best.

Those who have experienced exiting a packed football stadium after a long game on a hot Fall Sunday afternoon may have the most vivid picture of the steamy, someone stepping on your feet, often pushing you in a direction you don’t want to go, crowd which moves forward in a hurry to get to one particular place without much consideration of the individuals within it.

Standing in the crowd at Rich Stadium we just want to find the exit and our vehicle.  Standing in the crowd in Jericho, we just want a glimpse of Jesus, a chance to see for ourselves what all the fuss is about.

The crowd can be a distraction, causing us to focus on staying safe, to think about what others are doing and saying, about how small we feel in the middle of this multitude of people.  It can be overpowering and cause us to drop back, to stop trying to hear what Jesus has to say.  To begin to believe we aren’t important enough for a face-to-face encounter to matter anyway.

Zacchaeus thinks about those things.  He considers his physical size, his shortcomings, his status as one deemed unworthy by the religious community surrounding him, soley because of his profession.  However, he doesn’t drop back.  He runs ahead and climbs a Sycamore tree.

Middle Eastern adults do not run in public if they wish to avoid public shame. Powerful, rich men do not climb trees at public parades.  Zacchaeus knew this only too well. So in deciding to run ahead of the crowd he was making a decision that to catch a glimpse of Jesus was more important than appearances of dignity.  He chooses a tree which was easy to climb and provided cover thickly clustered broad leaves, maybe hoping to stay hidden. These trees were only allowed some distance from town a location where Zacchaeus may have hoped the crowd would be thinner[1].

He sets aside the distractions and focuses on getting to a place he can see and maybe hear what Jesus has to say.

Crowds in our lives can be distractions as well.  We might be caught up in a large group of people trying to get to hear someone promoted as an inspirational speaker or trying to enter a major sporting event.  We might get caught up in the crowd waiting to get the best seats at a special concert.  More commonly, I expect, we are caught up in the hectic everyday schedule of work, home, school, sports, organizations, shopping, recreation, care giving, and other demands on our time and energy.  Pushed around by a crowd of times and dates that distract us from finding a place to glimpse Jesus, from having an opportunity to hear what He has to say.

We may feel overwhelmed, small, unworthy for a face-to-face with Jesus and begin to think it doesn’t matter to us or to the Lord.

We get pushed to decide if we will fall back or run forward to find a Sycamore tree, away from the distractions and providing a safe place from which to look for Jesus as he walks by.

Into the safe quiet, observe from a distance, sanctuary of the leaf covered branches, comes a voice.  Jesus stops at the foot of the tree and invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus.  He doesn’t ask who is hiding in the tree.  He doesn’t inquire as to his worthiness or preparedness to receive him.

Jesus already knew Zacchaeus, who he was, what he hoped to find in seeing Jesus in person, what actions he would take once he encountered the Lord.

As we hear in Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it

With complete knowledge of who this tax collector was and what he had done with his life, Jesus simply looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Not, I would like to stay, not may I stay, but I must stay.  It is important for us to be together, for you to welcome me into your home, the parts of your life others know nothing about.

So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus.  He didn’t start making excuses about the house being clean, the pantry empty, or a “to do” list too long to ignore.  He joyfully welcomed this unexpected guest likely pulling together a wonderful meal in his honor.  Rescheduling or dismissing any activities that would crowd out this special time.

We know there were still people following Jesus who witness this exchange between someone hidden in a tree and Jesus.  Once they see who is in the tree, they begin to openly discuss what has occurred, grumbling about Jesus heading off to be the “guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Many see this as an act of repentance, of declaring in the company of witnesses what an encounter with someone who knows who you are and loves you anyway changes how we do business.  Some note that the verbs used in the Greek indicate it is in fact a statement of how Zacchaeus already relates to people as he collects their taxes.  A statement of self-defense, of what Jesus saw in him that the crowd of “religious” types couldn’t see.

Salvation enters the home of Zacchaeus regardless of how we view this story.  Jesus came to save the lost so Salvation entered the home in the person of Jesus.  Salvation enters the home because Zaccaheus is a son of Abraham, loved by God.  Salvation enters the home because a face-to-face encounter with God’s grace changes everything.

In every meal story, Jesus is a guest.  He has no home, no stocked pantry or staff to prepare the feast.  He is the feast, offered to all who hurriedly climb down the tree and welcome him in.  He seeks all, regardless of their qualifications according to the crowd outside, he invites himself to a time together with nourishment of body and spirit.

That didn’t stop with his death and resurrection.

We can welcome him to our tables anytime we want to.

Like Zacchaeus we need to move away from the distractions that crowd around us making it difficult to see where Jesus is and where he is leading.

We need to find a place of quiet on a regular basis where we can focus on seeing and hearing our Lord.  For some, a sycamore tree sounds like a terrific place for prayer and study, for others the kitchen table and a cup of coffee sound better.  It doesn’t matter where –  in the cab of your tractor, the lunch room where you work, the rocking chair in the baby’s room.  It matters that you go forward, out of the things that keep you from seeing Jesus, and set aside scheduled time to connect with God.

Zacchaeus didn’t stop there.  When he connected, he responded, immediately welcoming Jesus to join him..  He also reflected the love to others:  depending on the translation, either by repenting and repairing relationships where he had acted wrongly or by lifting the facts to those who judged him which reflected the reality it is God alone who knows our hearts and if Jesus is welcome in our home.

Jesus offers hospitality to Zacchaeus and to us by seeing who we are in Him.  We accept that hospitality by focusing on seeing and listening to His words and relationships with others and by extending hospitality to others, remembering to see each person as God sees them, not as our culture and tradition teach us to see them.

Salvation entered the house of Zacchaeus that day, not because the crowd thought it should, but because Jesus offered and Zacchaeus accepted.

Psalm 139 concludes:

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked[c] way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.[d]

Jesus knew the heart of Zacchaeus before he reached the bottom of that Sycamore tree.  Zacchaeus welcomed a relationship with him that leads to the way everlasting, and declared his commitment to serving others in a “Kingdom of God”, rather than a “Kingdom of Man” way.

As we offer hospitality to those around us.  This story offers us a model of how to welcome one another and how to create an environment of hospitality that inspires people to seek God and to value and encourage one another.

Many of you had responsibilities at the Fair this week.  You cooked, served, hosted people at exhibits, cleaned up, and enjoyed conversations with each other and the ones who stopped by.  Your demeanor, willingness to help and engage people you knew, as well as strangers, is a witness to God’s love and grace in your life.  People see Jesus in you as they see genuine care and desire to do all things with excellence and compassion.  When we truly have an interest in each other’s welfare, God’s abiding love is reflected and those having trouble seeing Jesus get a glimpse and in some instances a face-to-face encounter.

From providing EMS, to serving great food at a fair price from a Beef Booth, to 4-H exhibits and showing animals, how you interacted with one another and those you served at the Fair reflected your faith louder than any words you could share.

Hosting not only expresses God’s love, but opens us to receive a stranger or guest God sends our way to reveal something from God to us.  Henri Nouwen says in his book “Reaching Out,” Our vocation is to convert the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

Hospitality is a strength of this congregation.  As we extend it to a wider part of our community, that strength with increase in ways that help us connect to those God is calling us to welcome, as we frequently welcome Jesus to our table, learning more and more about hosting from a Kingdom of God point of view.  Responding to Jesus’ gracious love and acceptance and extending it to all we encounter.

 

[1] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 177