Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, September 19, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
Text: Luke 19:1-9
A second reading which informs my primary text is taken from Exodus 22 - the laws concerning restitution: When someone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. The thief will make restitution, but if unable to do so shall be sold for the theft. Where the animal, whether ox or sheep, is found alive in the thief's possession, the thief shall pay double. If a thief is found breaking in and is beaten to death no bloodguilt is incurred, but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred. When someone causes a field or a vineyard to be grazed over or lets livestock loose to graze in someone else's field, restitution shall be made from the best in his own field or vineyard. When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, the one who started the fire shall make full restitution. Amen.
Some months ago I had a singular experience that forever changed my views, not so much on technology, but on human behavior. I had gone into a store to pick up a particular accessory for my computer and being a little bit of a neophyte in such matters, I sought out the advice of the people in the store and then went to the counter to pay for the one little gadget that I needed. As I was standing to pay my bill, in came an elderly couple and the young sales clerk immediately left me standing there and turned to the couple to make a big sale of a computer. I thought, fine, maybe he's just being gracious. I will let this happen. So the clerk went over to the elderly couple and it was obvious from their look that they had never been in a computer store before. Intimidation was all over their faces and their eyes glazed over when they saw what was there. The young man, eager to make a sale of a hefty bit of hardware, started immediately to take them through the panoply that was before them of all these various and different computers. It was obvious that as the young man was making his sales pitch to this dear couple, he was overwhelming them with too much information. I was standing next to where he was making his pitch and he said, "You know if you have so many thousand bytes, this computer will drive you with power into the next millennium." You should have seen the look on those two faces! They would just be glad to see the next millennium, never mind being driven into it! Then he was getting more and more excited and introducing the animal kingdom to them; there will be so many RAMs in this thing and you will need a Mouse and with your arthritic hands-one that is shaped a particular way. Their eyes began to be completely glazed over and I wondered if they would be able to make the rest of the morning. One thing became obvious. The elderly couple became quite frustrated with the young man's pushiness. The young man also was getting angry with them. As they weren't getting any closer to making the sale, he became more and more technical. His language started to speed up and he became intolerant and rude with them. I know it's not ministerial, but I wanted to box the guy's ears, he was being so rude to them. Finally they gave up. They only wanted to write a letter to their nephew, that's all they wanted to do. But he was selling them the world of technology, so out they went, back into a cold and dark day.
1 couldn't help but think, that with all our talk of tolerance in the world today, there is still within the human soul, a great deal of intolerance. This was manifested most recently when I was talking to a friend of mine who found one day to his great surprise, that his neighbour had come over to him to remonstrate over the fence about the fact that he wasn't using his Blue Box as much as he should. She began to embark on a lecture of the virtues of recycling. My friend was completely in shock about this debate and he said to me afterwards that he was shocked that this woman would be so aggressive with him. What this woman didn't know was that my friend, like myself, has a great concern for the environment, but that he actually goes well beyond the law or recycling. He tries to buy things with as little packaging as possible to save the environment, so therefore hardly has to use the Blue Box at all. I asked if he said this to the neighbour and he said, "Oh, no ? that
would just give her way too much joy and l wasn't prepared to do that." But she was intolerant.
There is in our society at times this emerging sense of a new Puritanism, where people get on their band wagon with some great virtue that they seem to have discovered and nobody else seems to know about it and if you don't speak the language and do the things they do, then you are brought under judgement. It is an intolerant world.
Sometimes it's even an intolerant world in matters of faith and religion. One of the things that worries me greatly is what I sense is a growing degree of anti-Semitism within our society in North America and Europe. Why this is so I do not know; it is a mystery to me. But when I think of people in a Day Care being shot in Los Angeles simply because they are Jewish and that there is hate out there, it is beyond my comprehension. When I look for an example of Christians, who themselves are sometimes the target of people who are intolerant, and those who hold strong Christian views are somehow denigrated or put down or some sick person comes along and finds a raison d'Ãªtre to use his violence such as happened in Texas this past week, I cannot help but think, that for all our great dictums of toleration at the end of this century, still religious tolerance is lacking.
I realize that the Christian faith has not always, in matters of tolerance, been a great faith or has lived up to the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the medieval period example, there was a terrible moment when people who did not conform to the faith, were actually executed and put to death. The great Reformers like Calvin and Luther (my great heroes in matters of theology and faith) nevertheless were themselves intolerant to those who did not espouse their views and the Geneva community Calvin founded, still had a streak of intolerance within it. Even after the Reformation, many of the edicts that were passed were anything but tolerant. There is a famous Latin phrase (I had to call my nephew who studies Latin to help me with this phrase because I didn't understand it as it was written) cuius regio eius religio. In other words, the religion of the prince or the nation, should be the religion of everyone who lives within it. So even within the Reformation, there was this great clause about tolerance but it was a tolerance that only if you lived within the country of the prince's religion, could you be tolerated. That is why many of our forebears in the Congregationalist Church and the likes of Milton, stressed the need for religious tolerance ? the need to be able to hold religious views in freedom. In the 18th and 19th century, philosophers like John Locke and others stressed the need for tolerance in society, but even Locke had a limited tolerance. Only really in the 20th century, wherein law and in constitution, is religion tolerated right across the board. However, despite all our moves toward toleration, one of the great fears that I have is that we have moved from a belief in freedom of religion to freedom from religion. Religion itself, representing a people who hold convictions and views, whatever their stripe may be, is often belittled. You can see that many times when you look at movies and you see someone in a clerical collar. They are somehow strict and aggressive and rude and intolerant and exclusive, or they are abusive. Or if somebody has strong Christian convictions and is willing to die for them, they are somehow belittled as being a fanatic, as someone who is excluding others simply because they possess a strong faith of their own. That is what I mean by a spirit in the world that is a spirit of a freedom from religion. This is manifested when we expunge any references to God, when we eliminate any prayers that might be said to the Almighty simply because we want to have a world that is moral and ethical, but that is free from religion.
This is not what I mean by tolerance. I often ask myself why. Why is it that some people think that the Christian faith in particular is an intolerant faith? Why are religious people often looked at as being somehow narrow, somehow pushing people to the edges, rather than drawing them in? For when I open my bible and when I read my scriptures and I look at the gospel, I see anything but that. It pains me to the very bottom of my soul, that the world does not understand and has not read and has not heard of the grace and love of Jesus of Nazareth. I can see that because of our history and the abuse of the scriptures, we have sent a message to a society that thinks somehow it is free and it is liberated and it can be at home without the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Oh what a shame this is! When I look at the story that was read from the gospel of Luke this morning and we celebrate Tree Sunday, what could be more fitting than the story of Zaccheus in the sycamore tree? I can't help but think that the world needs to hear this story over and over again. Every time that I read the story of Zaccheus, I am moved to the bottom of my feet, because I see in this story, Jesus of Nazareth reaching out to the world and drawing the world in rather than pushing the world away.
We do not know much about this character Zaccheus. His name is probably from the Aramaic Zaccai and in the Book of Ezra, the family of Zaccai are one of the families that returned from the exile, one of the founding families of the people of Israel. This man Zaccheus we know nothing about, except that he was a tax collector. We read that he was in the city of Jericho which at that time was rich, rippling with commerce and pulsing with the sale of goods and oil. Its streets were lined with trees, so that when people came into this great city that was the crossroads of that part of the road, they would feel welcome. There were sycamore trees along the streets. We read of this encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus . There is so much for us to learn about the power of the Christian faith and its attractiveness in this meeting. There are many lessons for the church to learn, for at its centre is the call for adventurous living ? living that is full of grace, adventurous living that is full of the call of God. Look at the power of grace in this story.
We read of Zaccheus, and Luke goes to great lengths to tell us that he is a tax collector, just as Levi earlier in the gospel, had been a tax collector. Tax collectors were the lowest of the low, for the Romans had come in and established a very good plan for collecting money. They divided countries up into small areas and put tax collectors in charge of them and gave them a certain limit that they had to achieve in terms of raising funds. Anything over that, they were able to keep for themselves. You can see how easily this situation would lead to corruption. Although that system had somewhat changed by the time the New Testament was written, still there were two types of taxes that were collected. There were state taxes, which included the poll tax and income tax, and then there were duty taxes, sort of like GST taxes ? those taxes put on travel, road taxes, and those taxes incurred when you have a service or buy something ? a value-added tax that was put on. (Don't you feel better knowing it's been around for over 2000 years?) They had these heavy-duty taxes and the tax collectors were able to stop you on the street and demand money. "Have you paid your road tax?" They could demand money on the spot and there was no record kept of this, so in many ways they were seen as the plunderers of their time. From all sides they were criticized and in many cases they had become so hard of heart, so unknowing of what they were doing, that they just kept straight on doing what they were doing, thinking they were doing the right thing.
It reminds me of a story that is told by Scots who will sometimes make fun of themselves. There was a character named wee Hamish from Kirkaldy, a town in Scotland. This young man couldn't make a living there and was getting frustrated and wasn't progressing, so he said to his mother and father that he thought he would go to the promised land, to London to try and find a job. So his parents said, "OK wee Hamish you go down there, but you be careful because it's a big and a bad city." So off he went on the train to London and his parents didn't hear from him for days. Finally his mother tried to track him down and she found his phone number and phoned him up and said, "Wee Hamish, how are you doing?" He said, "Oh mother, I'm doing marvelously!" “Wee Hamish, do you have a job?" He said, "I have a wonderful job; I'm making gobs of money." "Wee Hamish, how are you finding the area in which you live?" He replied, "Oh it's delightful. I've bought a car, I understand the underground, I'm getting around easily. I love this place." She said, "Wee Hamish, have you found a house yet?" "Yes, mother, I have an apartment which is beautiful. There is only one problem." "What is that, Wee Hamish?" "On one side, the neighbours keep screaming at me through the walls until about 2 am. On the other side of me, they bang on the walls with hammers and it's almost unbearable. I don't know why
they do this until the wee hours of the morning!" His mother said, "Well wee Hamish, what do you do when all this is going on?" He said, "I just sit quietly in my room, mother, and play my bagpipes!"
Poor old Zaccheus was like wee Hamish. I'm not sure he knew he was doing something wrong, but one thing Zaccheus did know, was that he was ostracized, lonely, guilty of something, frightened, and was seeking for something deeper in his life. We do not know why or what he'd heard about Jesus, or why he went to seek him. Luke gives us no background. We do not know how he was feeling at the moment he decided to try and seek Jesus out.
All we know is that he sought him and that he actually went to extraordinary measures and climbed the sycamore tree to see him. We do know that he was hoping to find in Jesus of Nazareth, something he clearly wasn't finding in society. All the laws and ideas that had told him what he should be, had had little or no impact on Zaccheus. He was seeking deep within his soul, something more. What is so profound about this story is how Jesus responds to him. Jesus actually breaks the conventions of society. He goes and does what is so unexpected for a religious leader. He goes up to this lost soul (he had probably heard of his reputation, that he wouldn't want to have anything to do with Zaccheus) and sees him in the tree and then speaks these immortal words of grace, "Come down, Zaccheus, that I might dine with you this day.” The ultimate act of grace. When all society would say to leave this man alone for he is somehow beyond the pale (He is not even allowed into the synagogue), Jesus of Nazareth said, "Come down, Zaccheus, for I must dine with you today." Jesus went beyond even just contravening the social mores of his day, he was even willing in approaching Zaccheus, to pay the very cost of it all. He knew that he would be rebuked by society. He knew that he would be rebuffed by those who were supposedly people of God. He was ready for it, knew it was going to come and sure enough, Luke makes that case. Why does this Jesus have something to do with the likes Zaccheus? Jesus was willing to bear the pain of that moment for the sake of reaching that one lost soul, Zaccheus.
Isn't that grace? Isn't that the power of grace? Isn't that Jesus going even beyond what the law demands, not saying that the law was wrong, but going beyond it? Is that not the power of the generosity of God toward people who are seeking and searching and saying, "I want to see Jesus of Nazareth today." How anyone in any realm in our society could possibly find such grace to be worthy of rejection, I do not know.
There is one final element in all this. Not only did the grace of Jesus Christ reach out to Zaccheus in the tree but Jesus actually called Zaccheus to an adventurous life. Not only was
Zaccheus transformed, he was transformed also within. Not only did Jesus just affirm him in public, he changed him on the inside. So much so, that whatever happened at that meal between Jesus and Zaccheus we will never know, but one thing is for sure, when Zaccheus came out of that meal with Jesus he said, "Half of what I have I will give to the poor."
Many people might be cynical about such an act. Maybe it was to appease his guilty conscience. Maybe it was just to make Zaccheus feel better, but the next step goes well beyond that. He said, "I will give back to those from whom I have stolen four times the amount." According to the law in the Book of Exodus, if you are found guilty in a court of law, if you have not confessed, then you have to give to people in restitution four times, but if you're willing to come forth and declare what you have done, then you need only to give equal restitution plus one fifth. But Zaccheus of his own volition, gives back four times what he had taken. Such is the power of grace on a person's life, that no matter how much you try to legislate goodness, the power of the goodness of Jesus Christ goes beyond even that goodness mandated by the law. That the power of Jesus Christ in changing people, is in order that their hearts might be in tune with the very generosity Of God that we find in Jesus saying, "Come down and I will dine with you today."
Yesterday I picked up the Toronto Star and in what is an absolutely horrible situation in Scarborough with the serial rapist, there is nevertheless still some hope. One of the women who was confronted by the attacker and described what happened as pure evil, had this to say: When she cried out in her moment of need and the attacker was there, she said, "Oh Jesus, help Me!” The attacker turned and fled from the room. That is amazing, but even more so is what the woman said afterwards. I hope and pray that some of her friends are listening on the station today and tell her how impressed I am of this. She wrote according to the article that was written that although the man frightened her senseless, incredibly she said that as a mother she feels sorry for her twisted attacker. This is somebody's son. As a religious woman she prays for him just as she prays that he will be apprehended before he hurts anyone else. "I just want to know what happened to him that promoted this self-destructive behaviour," she said. "I think about it all the time. Why? Why? Why?"
Here is the power of grace, praying for this person. This is way beyond what anyone could ever demand. It is the power of grace.
One of the most powerful books that I have read in the past decade was written by a man named Philip Yancey, the Editor of Christianity Today, and in my opinion one of the great articulate and lucid writers of our time. In his book What's So Amazing about Grace? ? a book that I so highly recommend, he talks about his concern for the hardness of religion in North America. The hardness and coldness that is often besetting religion in its desire for vengeance at times. He says that this is not in keeping with what we read in the gospels and I agree with Yantsy. He tells the story of a young girl from Travers City in Northern Michigan who was brought up in a religious home where the parents said their prayers and she went to Sunday school and church. She decided to experiment with life and put some rings in her nose and she started to have friends that her parents didn't particularly like and started listening to music that they didn't ascribe to and finally she became tired of her parents' rejection and ran away. She ran to the big, bad city of Detroit and within a matter of days she ran into a very nice and charming gentleman who met her on the street. He invited her back to his house and used some religious language and said that he believed that this was the call of God that they should meet up with one another. He introduced her to all manner of pleasures that she'd never seen at home ? to a particular powder that gave her a high, to particular drinks that she'd never been able to taste, to a plush and gorgeous apartment. Then he began to introduce her to some of his friends and they were attracted to her. Many of the friends came over and she entertained them for the night. For a year or so she lived in the lap of luxury and never gave thought to Travers City in Michigan; in fact she so enjoyed life in the big city, she wished she'd done this sooner.
After awhile this man decided that she owed him greatly and so he put her out onto the street. After a year on the street, she was so addicted to drugs and alcohol, to having to raise money on the street to feed her habit, that finally one May day she sat behind a dumpster not far from Tiger Stadium and she smelled the blossoms and her mind went back to Travers City. She thought of her Labrador retriever romping through the garden and she thought of the home cooking of her mother and father and she wept. There beside that dumpster she thought that she should go home. Finally she got on the phone and after three tries of getting only the answering machine, she finally left a message and said, "I will be taking a bus home tonight and if you're there at the bus station to greet me, I will come home. If you want nothing more to do with me, I will keep going to Canada. "She sat on the bus and in the seven-hour journey up to Northern Michigan she thought of all the things she'd say to her parents. She even tried to write out a speech but it didn't seem to ring true. She didn't know how she was ever going to explain what she had done. Finally she started to get near the town and her heart started to race and a lump was in her throat. She wondered what could she say to try and bring her parents back. She had this awful nightmare, this vision that somehow the minister from the church would be there and she would get a telling off and be told of all her sins. She became frightened but still she felt she must get on with it. Finally she got to the bus station and walked off in the night's darkness and she went into what appeared to be an empty bus station and she looked around the corner and there was nobody there, and finally behind another corner, there with the concrete walls and the plastic chairs, there were forty members of her family -cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, with party hats on and streamers and she walked into the midst of it all and then came her father through it all. The father had a huge cake and he said to her, "Finally you are home!"
Isn't that what Jesus would do? Isn't that what Jesus says to all the seekers in our society who are looking for something spiritual, who are looking for something ethical, who are looking for forgiveness, who are looking for hope, who are looking for redemption. Is this not what Jesus said to Zaccheus? " You are home!" Oh how I want the world to hear that word. Amen.