"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 goes on.

     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 goals.

     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 Divinity School.

     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 circumstances.

     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 people.

     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 share.

     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 . . .