"Our Shift from Me to We"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 26, 2008
Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10
One of the most memorable stories from our Sunday School days is
found in our Gospel lesson for today. The story of Zacchaeus stands
along side those of Noah’s ark and Moses crossing the Red Sea.
Zacchaeus was exceedingly wealthy. Not only was he a tax collector, he
was a chief tax collector. The Romans had a brilliant system for
collecting taxes from people living in their vast empire. They carefully
selected native people from their respective provinces who were educated
and proficient in accounting skills. The Roman government told the tax
collectors how to calculate the amount they wanted to extract from each
citizen and then told them that they could charge any amount above that
as their stipend for performing in Caesar’s service.
The Jews despised tax collectors because they often took sizeable
amounts of money from their own people and grew wealthy from those who
could least afford it. There are numerous Gospel references where tax
collectors were specifically named in any listing of sinners.
Even though these men were hated by the Jews, Jesus chose to accept them
just as they were. Jesus was often criticized for consorting with
outcasts and tax collectors. (Mark 2:16) In spite of the public’s
outcry, Jesus had a strange attraction to tax collectors. Not only did
he choose one to become one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9) but there was
another occasion when he told the chief priests and elders, “Tax
collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of
you.” (Matt. 21:31) This morning’s lesson may give us some insight into
this unique attraction.
During the early days of his ministry Jesus attracted crowds even as he
walked from one destination to another. Wherever he went, word of his
travels always circulated ahead of him. Zacchaeus saw and heard the
commotion as Jesus was passing through his village. Since he was small
in stature he climbed a tree. When Jesus walked by the tree he paused.
He noticed a man watching him from this high perch. Perhaps Zacchaeus’
dress revealed what he did for a living. Even when dressed casually, his
Armani tunic was unmistakable. The oyster series Rolex timepiece was a
dead giveaway. His Gucci sandals from Tuscany pointed to his identity as
a tax collector.
Because Jesus’ destination of Jericho was still quite a distance, he did
what any sensible, itinerating preacher might do – he invited himself
not only for dinner but to spend the night. Feeling extremely validated
by the request, Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree and took the Master
home with him.
Our lesson reveals the shock among those who had just witnessed this
event. They grumbled among themselves, “This man has gone as a guest to
the home of a sinner.” Jesus did not allow the public’s attitude to
prevent him from caring for someone they despised. Obviously, Jesus was
very secure with his identity.
Why has this story been so significant to readers through the centuries? Luke is the only Gospel that records this event. Most likely it is
because a chief tax collector had his life completely transformed
because of the time the two men spent together. Somehow Jesus helped
Zacchaeus change his attitude from me to we. We know this because of his
response to Jesus, “I will give half of my belongings to the poor, and
if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much as they
believe I took unfairly.” This me to we was quite a shift in attitude!
It would be for anyone.
The other night I was with Doug Lawson who had a similar experience with
T. Boone Pickens, the former Oklahoma State basketball player who has
made his billions as a Texas oil man. Perhaps you have seen Boone’s TV
infomercials featuring our nation’s need to change its energy policies.
A number of years ago, Doug’s company was retained by the Big Brothers
and Big Sisters organization to help them raise ten million dollars. Being a Dallas man himself, Doug visited his friend and said, “Boone,
how would you like to help 2000 kids get a better start in life?” After
he explained the program Boone said, “What’s the cost to per child?”
Doug said, “$1,000.” Boone said, “That’s two million dollars! You are
asking me for two million dollars.” Doug said, “Will you do it?” Boone
thought for a minute and said “Yes.” Up until that request, Boone
Pickens’ largest gift to any organization had been $1,000. Today, he has
given over 700 million dollars to various benevolent causes. The story
Boone picked up the phone and called another friend who also gave two
million dollars. That person knew the Kimberly Clark family – the
Kleenex people – and they gave another two million. So it went. Big
Brothers and Big Sisters eventually raised twenty-two million dollars in
their effort to raise ten million. Doug helped several people to
transform from me to we, and that more than doubled the goal of this
enterprise that mentors young people until they can be launched in life
equipped with solid, fundamental values that fuel their attitudes and
Just imagine the economic impact on people in the surrounding territory
because a chief tax collector had been taught by Jesus on how to reverse
the energy flow of attitudes governing his life. Jesus said, “Salvation
has come to this house today.” What did this mean? Had Zacchaeus been
lost? Was his soul at risk eternally? After all, he had only been doing
his job the way others had taught him. Plus, a person with his skills
and education came with a price. What changed Zacchaeus’ understanding?
Any time me turns into we, a person’s spirit has been reversed. It has
been transformed. Fear is always about me. Gathering what “we deserve
because we have earned it and we are worth it” is always about me. Strutting our stuff, wearing our religion on our sleeve and hanging out
only with people who share our values is always about me.
Jesus spent an extraordinary amount of time with Zacchaeus. During that
time he communicated what were the most essential elements of life. One
of the non-essentials was the accumulation of wealth. He probably told
Zacchaeus the story of the wealthy farmer who had an outstanding growing
season. The farmer said, “What shall I do? I know, I will tear down my
barns and build bigger ones. Then I will say to myself, ‘Lucky man! You
have all the good things you need for many years. Take life easy -- eat,
drink and enjoy yourself!’”
It is fascinating that this story is one that also was only recorded by
Luke. Jesus recounted what God said to the wealthy farmer. “Tonight you
will die in your sleep. Who will get all of these things that you have
kept for yourself?” Perhaps Jesus smiled and looked Zacchaeus in the eye
and made his final point. “This is how it is with those who pile up
riches for themselves but are not rich in God’s sight.” (Luke 12:13-21) Understanding me to we transforms people.
Most of us are aware of the existence of Yale Divinity School. A number
of years ago, Yale University began to distance itself from the training
of those going into the service of Christ inspired by his great
commission to go into the world and make disciples. Yale University and
the Divinity School had evolved into two distinct cultures. The
University was thinking of terminating their relationship with the
Again, Doug Lawson had been invited to sit on the Divinity School’s
board. During the process of acquainting and saturating new board
members with their universe of responsibilities, they were given a tour
of the campus. Doug found the conditions of the dormitories deplorable. The bathrooms were in shambles. The classrooms were poorly lighted and
the ventilation system was very primitive. He asked the board to wake up
and do something about the condition of the buildings on campus. It was
then he learned that there was talk in the University’s Board of ending
their formal relationship with the Divinity School. Doug asked for an
audience with the President of Yale University.
What he had heard was confirmed. Yale was putting its money toward new
Science and Business Administration buildings. Doug reminded the
president that Yale had been founded on the premise of training clergy
and only later had branched out into academia. Doug said, “Will you
commit thirty two million dollars if our Board raises an additional
thirty-two?” The President took the request to his Board and all agreed.
Today, if you traveled to Yale Divinity School, you would find that the
campus is one of the most pristine you will find anywhere. Every
building has been completely refurbished. This is the campus where the
multi-volume set of The Interpreter’s Bible was put together. Obviously,
Doug Lawson and his board raised the sixty four million dollars
necessary to polish that cloudy diamond of this campus. He had convinced
the President of Yale University to understand me to we.
One of the things I try to do each year is present to you unannounced my
annual Stewardship message. A lot of churches talk about money
constantly. I prefer to talk about our responsibilities to our church
only once a year even though these economic times are unique.
I am going to give you a piece of trivia. Since the Great Depression in
1929 there have been ten recessions. A recession is technically defined
as two consecutive quarters when our nation’s gross national product
declines. In all but one recessionary period, benevolent giving has gone
up. In the recession of 1987 giving went down by just one percent.
This information is fascinating because it lifts up that we Americans
are among the most generous people on the planet. Of course, we are
talking about givers here, people who have found great value in we that
causes our spirits to soar well beyond me. Faith is never defined as
taking risks because of a sure thing. It means trusting God in all
There can be little doubt that Jesus simply asked Zacchaeus to give what
he was able to give. Once Zacchaeus was put in touch with the essentials
of life, his gratitude and thanksgiving gushed, “I will give half of my
belongs to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four
times as much as they believe I took unfairly.” Think of the economic
impact to that community because Zacchaeus’ life had been transformed! Now we may understand why Jesus was so attracted to tax collectors. When
they are changed a great source of pain is removed from the lives of his
Again, why did Jesus say, “Salvation has come to this house today.” There is always salvation when accumulating surrenders to sharing. Fear
can never be a dominating influence in life when a person is willing to
This morning I want all of you to remember the concept of the two Os. Do
not think of my message this morning as an effort in fund-raising to
support our 2009 spending plan. I am only doing what Jesus did with
Zacchaeus – offering you the two Os. We offer opportunities for you to
grow spiritually through your financial giving.
We are always knocking on your door offering you the opportunity to
underwrite our teens when they travel to their Appalachian Service
Projects, or when we support children who will not have a Christmas
because one or both of their parents are incarcerated in our county’s
detention center. This is who we are and this is what we do.
Tomorrow letters will be mailed to everyone whose address we have with
all the information you need to make your decision. Remember that
remarkable thought that begins the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, “To have
faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, and to be certain of the
things we cannot see.” There are two sure things in life. The first is
that everything is constantly changing. The second is that God can be
trusted to love and guide you in every one of your circumstances. We
need to give bountifully because we honestly believe that.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always present God, if we counted the number of
opportunities to reflect our vast potential since birth, we would cease
to see all else. We have grown wiser. We have experienced you in our
lives. We have learned that we reap exactly what we sow. We have learned
not to define ourselves by the times that we have failed to make visible
the best that we know. Our life experiences have taught us to mistrust
beauty, prosperity and wealth as sources for our guidance. In their own
season each of them changes. Heal the fears that magnify our
insecurities. Help each of us to accept the invitation of Jesus to
change the quality of our thoughts and the direction of our lives. Nurture the work of our faith community so that it becomes an extension
of who we are. Help us to recognize that what we value and believe is
always on life’s stage for everyone to see. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We come before you today, O God, knowing how many times our faith has
transformed moments of pain into lessons of triumph. Our reversals have
taught us patience. Hindsight has helped us define the "why" of life's
many unexpected changes. Loneliness has taught us our need to give more
of ourselves to others. Boredom has provided us with the motivation to
make more plans and set higher goals. We thank you for how our faith and
trust in you has such transformative powers.
Each time we achieve anything, it is because we have discovered how to
use what you have given us. We have discovered, also, that the moments
in life that have truly mattered have been those when our trust in your
love sustained us while our own abilities were weak, frail and
undeveloped. May we always cherish the understanding that with you there
is no mountain we cannot climb, no darkness that can permanently
surround us, and no misadventure from which we cannot escape. You are
there every step of our journey as we learn how to be more skilled at
being the angels in the flesh whom Jesus called, "My disciples."
Continue to help us, O God, to create the atmosphere and environment at
St. Matthew's where people feel safe, secure, and loved just as we are. Help each of us to be generous of heart and always eager to serve you. We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us
to say when we pray . . .