October 30, 2016
Luke 19:1-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
“Saints Like Us”
It is interesting to me that as we enter the final days before the election and tensions are high, the lectionary gives us tax collectors two weeks in a row. Tax collectors were known as the ones who cheated and took advantage of people for their own personal gain. They were despised by society and in both of these stories; the tax collectors have a profound change of heart. Zacchaeus is curious about this man Jesus. A crowd has gathered around him and so Zacchaeus climbs a tree for a better view. He gets more than a glimpse of Jesus when Jesus calls him down from the tree and invites himself over for dinner! The people around start grumbling, “Why did Jesus pick that guy? He’s completely unethical. He’s no example.” But Jesus never asked who people thought he should eat with or visit or heal or teach. It almost seems that Jesus enjoys shocking people with the ones he chooses to hang out with. He doesn’t care about impressing people, but he does care about connecting with people…particularly the ones who have been cast out by society. It is amazing to witness how an encounter with Jesus can help someone break free and become a better person.
I’m guessing that I am not the only one here today who wishes I could change something about myself. For years, I have wanted to be a more generous person. I’m not sure if generosity is determined by nature or nurture. Am I genetically predisposed to be a particular brand of generous? Does my environment teach and inspire me to become more generous? I’m not sure which is the more powerful influence. I do believe I can become more generous simply by giving more. I don’t think I have to be struck by lightning or have Jesus to show up in my house for it to happen. I think it can happen just by giving more. I was really taken by the theme Fearless Generosity because that’s what I want to be: fearlessly generous.
I have listened to your stories this month: Gino talked about living fearlessly and not letting life’s difficulties keep him from living wholeheartedly. Richard talked about serving fearlessly and not letting the name-calling and verbal abuse keep him from being the best referee he could be. Bill and Sue talked about fearlessly sowing seeds in this congregation during what may be its lowest point. They have seen the fruits of their labor in the years that followed. Ruth talked about how the congregation has given her many opportunities to grow and in return she gives fearlessly. I am listening to you Gino, Richard, Bill, Sue, and Ruth. You are teaching me that fearlessness doesn’t mean I am not afraid, but it means not letting fear have the last word.
I am listening to Janet who owns a business and when things get difficult financially, she and Beth give money away and suddenly business picks up more than they could have dreamed. It hasn’t happened just once. It is a pattern that has taught Janet she can rely on the abundance of God. Janet knows she can be fearless in her generosity because she has seen over and over again that there is more than enough.
I don’t know what you want to change, but I know that change is possible. That is part of what makes Jesus so powerful. People walk away from their encounters with him changed. They are healed, they are free, they are whole, and they are generous. Both of these tax collectors had a change of heart and were sorry for their greed. But they didn’t stop there. Zacchaeus made restitution four times over to those he had wronged. One commentator said the Greek doesn’t say, “I WILL give back, but I GIVE back.” The tense is present as if he has already changed.
Today we celebrate All Saints. We do so honoring those who have gone before us and have invested so much in this church, in our lives, and in our world. Let’s be clear that the word saint does not mean perfection, but it is about impact. These are people whose lives made a difference. If saints had to be perfect, there wouldn’t be any. Some of you know that my father died in April. We didn’t have the easiest relationship but the thing I appreciate about him more than anything else is that he really worked to heal relationships with his family. Our relationship at the end of his life was different than it had been earlier in his life. He showed me that change is possible. I am grateful that he wanted to be different and was willing to have honest conversations that opened the door to new ways of relating.
That’s what All Saints is about for me. It inspires me to recognize what a difference one life can make. It’s a powerful reminder that we can change because “God loves us as we are and loves us too much to let us stay that way.” We stand on the shoulders of so many people who have fearlessly and generously given us this church. We stand on the shoulders of so many who didn’t give up when things were difficult. We stand on the shoulders of dreamers and visionaries and tireless worker bees. We stand on the shoulders of young and old who poured their hearts into a place where all are welcome and where the soil is rich and lives are changed.
Maren Tirabassi writes wonderful liturgy and poetry. This week, she wrote about the Zacchaeus story from the perspective of the tree. I had never thought of the tree in that way, but she described how the tree existed for the moment that Zacchaeus climbed up for a better view and then tumbled down to a new life. Then she said:
“Of course, I’ve known saints like that
whose lives are hand holds
for the lifting up
of those who are short
of something on their roads,
and cannot catch a glimpse
of what they desperately need.
Sycamore trees have twisted limbs
and are known
to take many shapes –
some look like therapists…
a Facebook friend, a teacher,
a bartender or a sponsor,
maybe people from a church,
or people who’ve never
been inside one.
They’ve all got roots,
wide and inviting branches,
and they never insist on being
when I tell the story.”
Look at the people on the table this morning. Remember those who have gone before us and know that your life matters. What you do, what you give, and who you are has the power to change the world. I have been thinking of the movie Amistad that tells the story of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the United States in 1839. It carries a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba. As the ship crosses to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. When they reach the U.S., they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. An abolitionist lawyer takes their case arguing that they were free citizens of another country. Just before the case goes before the Supreme Court, Cinque tells John Quincy Adams that he will summon all his ancestors to his aid. When Adams questions that, Cinque replies, “They will come. They must come, for I am at this moment the only reason they existed at all.”
We are the church today. We are the extravagant welcome. We are the face of healing and love. We are the hands that feed and care and reach out those who are vulnerable. We are why our ancestors existed. We are Christ’s hands and feet. If you aren’t the person you want to be, don’t worry. Jesus invites you down from the tree where you observe to become a fully engaged disciple. None of us begins with perfection. We begin where we are and we offer ourselves and we trust that God is at work in us. That’s what a saint looks like.