A sermon delivered on October 30, 2022 by Patrick H. Wrisley
We pick up in the Story with Jesus just a day or two away from his entering into Jerusalem on what we traditionally call Palm Sunday. At the moment, we find Jesus and his disciples somewhat east/northeast of Jerusalem roughly twenty miles away down along the Jordan river in the town of Jericho. He’s been heading south from the Galilee and as he goes, we hear how the crowds are becoming larger and larger the further along he travels. People are on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover festival and observant Jews from all parts of Israel were headed to the holy city. Add to that electric atmosphere Jesus’ exploding popularity as he makes his way south.
If we are careful readers of the text, we can begin to see how Luke as the Storyteller is slowing the action down in the narrative wanting us to pay attention to the details. Like tapping the breaks on a car to gently slow the momentum forward, Luke inserts two Jericho stories back to back forcing us as readers to drop to a lower gear as the narrative’s speed shifts. Think of it like this: When I am out riding country roads on my motorcycle, Bella, I’ll zip along at a nice clip to get to where I am going. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that when you enter into a small town that posts a 25 mph sign, I gear down immediately because these little country Florida towns are speed traps! This is what Luke is doing. In verses 18:35 we note how, “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging.” He cries out for healing and Jesus literally stopped in the middle of the road and gave the man his sight back. “When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” Now, our text for today from Luke 19:1-10. Listen to the Word of the Lord.
In your imagination, place yourself in the Story. Word has hit the city Jesus has just healed a blind man just a bit north of there. The roads are packed with pilgrims going to Jerusalem and word is spreading quickly through the throngs. As people watched this interchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus, we are told in verse 11, “While they were listening to Jesus’ interchange with Zacchaeus, he went on to tell them a parable, because the people thought that the kingdom of God was to appear at once!” Can you feel the energy? Can you feel the excitement? Do we fully understand that for the Jew of that day, the kingdom of God coming at once was as much a political statement as it was a spiritual one? Coursing through the growing throngs is this building anticipation of an impending Independence Day and regaining control of their homeland both politically with this possible new messiah and spiritually in that God’s anointed was among the crowds rubbing shoulders with the people?
If you were right there when all this was going down, what would you be seeing and experiencing? Try to freeze that action in your mind. People up close to Jesus were pushing forward to see him, to touch him. It’s very loud as people are yelling to get his attention and yelling in excitement at what they were seeing. People in the back of the crowds hear something is going on ahead and they pick up their pace and the mass of people begins to get pressed in tighter as they enter Jericho. We woke up this morning to read how at least 151 people died in Seoul Korea last night from a crowd surge at Halloween festivities. Well, the crowd was thronging, surging as the pilgrims pushed their way to see Jesus and head to Passover celebrations. As we watch Jesus go by, we begin to see people descend into the parade from all sides. And like every crowd, you had the joyous multitudes of well-wishers and then you had the grumblers who kept on the periphery complaining about the crowds, complaining about this so-called kingdom of God and this pauper prince who was stirring things up. The grumblers long for quiet stability. They love predictability and the quiet ebbs and flows of a mundane life. They are the keepers of the status quo because change is uncomfortable and inconvenient because it forces you to exert effort to adapt to the coming changes.
So, what do you do if you are a little person who is more or less despised by the people in the city because you are the chief tax collector working on Rome’s behalf to raise revenue from your own countryman? You too feel the excitement of the crowds. You too experience the electricity in the air. You too have heard Stories about the itinerant Rabbi Jesus who confounds the religious establishment, heals the broken, and preaches a simple message that people are to be gracious and patient with each other, that we are love one another, that we are to grow the circle wide and embrace others who may not be just like me into the throng. You want to see who this was Jesus, too!
Zacchaeus was no fool and didn’t just fall off a turnip truck. He knew his miserable reputation among the people and was well aware of his short stature but what he lacked in height he made up with shrewdness. He would pre-position himself down the road a bit, climb a tree and wait as the crowds and Jesus come to him.
At this point, we do not know of Zacchaeus’ intentions and attitudes towards Jesus. Was he really interested in this new, controversial Rabbi or was he just another looky loo on the parade route trying to get a glimpse of the latest cause celebre? We honestly don’t know. What we do know is this: Even though Zacchaeus didn’t know who Jesus really was, Jesus knew Zacchaeus. We know Jesus is the one who initiated a relationship with Zacchaeus. We know that Jesus felt strongly about the need to get to know the pariah of the local community. We know that Jesus spent the day with him and most likely had a meal with him as well. We know that Zacchaeus was thrilled to respond to Jesus’ request and we also know that others in the thronging crowd began to gripe and grumble that “This Jesus is the guest of a sinner…one of THOSE people!” And finally, we know that wholeness was restored between Zacchaeus and the people and between Zacchaeus and God as well.
In verse 7, we read that when Jesus welcomed Zacchaeus’ company that, “”all who saw it,” not some who saw it, not a few that saw it, but “all who saw it began to grumble.” They grumbled that Jesus would associate with this man whose very life actively declares his corruptness. And yet, we actively see Jesus trying to reconcile those who are on the outside with those who are on the inside. We see Jesus tearing town barriers of division and then bring healing and reconciling among the people. We see people like Zacchaeus who were flat out joyous to have Jesus do what he did but we also see those on the side who grumbled about Jesus’ behavior.
In a recent conversation with the General Presbyter from neighboring Peace River Presbytery, Melana Scruggs, she indicated 49% of mainline pastors are leaving the ministry. Why? Because they are burned out from trying to appease the grumblers in the church who are upset the status quo is being challenged and they simply don’t like it. They are too comfortable with the ways things are and do not want to expend the energy to grow, change and make room for others to join them on the pew. They are opposed to fresh ideas, or even God-forbid, they are reticent to admit that they may be wrong!
As tempting as it was to compose a sermon and address the question, “If Jesus invited himself to your house for dinner, what would you talk about?”, I realized the all too prevalent notion in many Christian circles and churches who grumble about the grace extended to “those people” who are obviously “sinners” and are left wondering, “Who invited THEM here? Who said it was okay for us to do THAT for them?” The juxtaposition of joy and grumbling so close to one another in the text just begged to be explored.
Today, we are voting upon whether or not to change our churches leadership model to having co-pastors in lieu of the senior pastor. Looking over the five years I’ve journeyed with you, I have seen a metamorphosis that’s been subtle but one that is ever so noticeable. Let me explain. Almost two months ago, church leadership held a leadership advance where we asked an outside consultant to come and help us wrestle with issues of church identity and the future. Some weeks after the event in August, Nic was talking with the consultant while reflecting on the weekend, and the consultant made an observation about you, Church, that I think is beautiful and precious. He called you an “Obliterating categories” congregation.
He said, “Here I was leading a large group of leaders of all different ages and sexes. Over here, there was an older matriarch of the church having meaningful dialogue with a young gay man about how the church can address the community at large and the conversation wasn’t a big deal. I saw people engaging together as a body to dream about your church’s identity and future. And then at worship, I encounter a worship experience that contains elements of southern evangelicalism combined with a thoughtful, reformed, inclusive voice. There were no signs or flags about what you believed; you were living it out together. I’ve never seen that before in the churches in our denomination. You’re doing it different. You’re obliterating categories in quiet non-intrusive ways. You’re just being yourselves.”
This causes me to be joyful. It communicates to me that folks here are becoming more joyful, egalitarian, inclusive and patient with each other as together, we walk side by side trying to live in love as Jesus asks us to do. It causes me to be joyful because it demonstrates as a congregation you are growing deeper in your imitation of Jesus. It causes me joy because the cacophony of grumbling is replaced with sounds of gratitude and thanksgiving.
So beloved, as we each leave today, let us reflect upon the juxtaposition of our expressed joy and our expressed grumbling. Let’s ask ourselves, “Am I a part of obliterating categories or am I pushing for the old status quo?” The Spirit give us wisdom and grace in these things. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.