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Seeking (and being sought by) Jesus

October 31, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw this began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” [But] Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

zacchaeus-1

The story of Zacchaeus is the story of a man who climbed a tree because he was seeking Jesus – but who discovered that it was, in fact, Jesus who was seeking him.

I remember exactly where I was when I learned to see this story, a story I had known since church school, in a new way. I was at the top of a tree. You see, I used to lead youth retreats for junior high school students at our Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Holmes, New York. The purpose of the retreats was to bring a group of kids – who didn’t necessarily know one another – together in a way that challenged them to think of themselves as not just ten or twenty or forty individual youth but as part of the church, the body of Christ. One way I did this was by providing a shared experience for them at the camp, a weekend apart in the beautiful outdoors. But the center of this experience was always a full day on the camp’s High Ropes Adventure Course.

The ropes course at Holmes is essentially a large obstacle course built of rope bridges, balance beams and tightropes, elevated about forty feet off the ground and suspended from trees. Each youth, in turn, climbs the trees, secure in a safety harness, to navigate the different challenges. There is room for about eight kids at a time in the trees. But safety harness notwithstanding, working through the course would challenge their trust in themselves and especially their trust in the group. It’s not easy to do something difficult while on display before your peers. The high ropes course is described as “challenge by choice” meaning that the students are asked to go as far as they think they can, and then take one step further beyond their comfort zone. I would be up in the tree all day, working with each kid individually. Invariably, youth discover their own inner resources of courage, strength and care for each other.

It was while I was sitting all day at the top of a tree during one of these retreats, thinking about what to preach about at the closing worship service, that the story of Zacchaeus came to me. What a perfect story. It’s the story of a man who climbed a tree in search of Jesus. On my retreats, the kids all came looking for something too: fun, adventure, friendship, challenge. Probably not too many came really looking for Jesus. But they all find something unexpected up there in the trees.

For example, I remember a student named Jackie (I remember her because we shared the same birthday) who came down and told her youth group that what she found at the top of the tree was a part of herself that she never knew she had when she was on the ground. Though students often discovered confidence, courage, and strength, I was always moved by the kids who discovered humility, the recognition that no matter how strong and self possessed we all seem on the ground, new situations challenge and can change us all. When the high ropes course is over, you can forget about what you discovered in the tree and just brag about how easy it was. Or you can let what happened to you in the tree become a part of who you are.

Our story does not say what Zacchaeus thought he would find when he climbed the tree to see Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was just the latest spectacle to pass from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was entertainment, a miracle worker, a preacher or even prophet. But as Zacchaeus looked down from the tree, Jesus looked up – and saw him – saw the self he was inside, a self he didn’t know he was…yet.

And Jesus said, “Hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.” It was an invitation Zacchaeus suddenly couldn’t refuse. Something in him had changed. There is no record of what he and Jesus spoke about over dinner, but at one point Zacchaeus stood up and declared that he would make up for the wrong he had done, and he would pay back the poor not only what he took but four times more. Somehow, up in the tree and then gathered around the table, Zacchaeus found himself addressed by God, he discovered himself anew, and he turned to a more just way of life.

For Zacchaeus, being found by Jesus meant seeing himself as he truly was – as God saw him. And the encounter changed his life. For when we are seen by the gracious and challenging eyes of God, we can grow into people we never imagined we could be.

The story of Zacchaeus is the story of a man who climbed a tree because he was seeking Jesus – but who discovered that it was, in fact, Jesus who was seeking him all along.

My friends, the God we know in Jesus is always seeking us, seeking you and me, looking up at us and looking out for us, every day. In Christ we are invited to see ourselves as God does, created in God’s image, our lives and our life together held in loving judgment, so that we and our world may be led and lured back to the way God intends.

Most of us don’t climb up trees to open ourselves to the divine. But we do all set apart time to worship God together. We come here to “lift up our hearts” to God, even taking the leafy tree as a symbol of our congregation, and sometimes we find ourselves addressed and encompassed by the divine. We open scripture and find God speaking to us, reforming us and our community. Often in singing we find ourselves moved to a more profound alleluia, a new sense of gratitude and apprehension of grace. And we let that experience become a part of who we are.

Here in this congregation, we work hard, together, on the problems of our world and the problems of ourselves. We also work hard on the challenges of maintaining this great facility and making it useful to the neighborhood. By the way, since winter is upon us, the single best good news in our budget this year is the investment we made two years ago in the new energy-efficient oil burners. The first half of this year we spent only $12,000 on oil. Last year we had spent $29,000 at this point, and the year before we had spent $42,000. That is good for the earth. It is good for church. It is good stewardship.

In my stewardship letter this year I wrote, “this church runs on love, but money sure helps!” Money helps because we need to heat the building if we and the community are to meet; because we need to pay the staff if we are going to continue to offer the programming and support needed; because we believe in backing up our words about mission with money for mission.”

No fancy language there, just honest practical reality. Now this isn’t to say there’s not a spiritual basis for giving generously. I have preached sermons on the spirituality of stewardship, on the benefits of generosity, of our innate need to give. How all things belong to God, and we simply return a portion for God’s use. We have also spoken together about reparations, about inequality and economic justice, about how some of us benefit from a structurally unjust world and others of us are harmed by it, and therefore we cannot comfortably affirm that all we have was simply given by God. I have posted some sermons on the spirituality of stewardship on the church’s Facebook page this week for your further reflection.

But today I simply appeal to you: when you fill out your pledge card for 2017 and bring it to church next Sunday, please be as generous as you can to help sustain this congregation that doesn’t shy from asking the hard questions of itself or of our faith or of our world. Be as generous as you can to this place where we can be both vulnerable and strong and know we will be met by others who are unafraid to be both vulnerable and strong. Be as generous as you can because this is a place of acceptance in a world that can be all too brutal. Be as generous as you can so that this congregation, which has become home for us, which is a place where we can bring all of who we are and who we long to be, in trust, so that this congregation can be home for others for the next year and years to come. Amen.

 

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