July 8 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
SCRIPTURE READING: Luke 19:1-10
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
When I was growing up, our family used to live about 20 miles from the nearest K-mart and Wal-mart. So every week or so, our mom would pack my sisters and I into the car to make the trip to “town” to do our shopping. My youngest sister rode in the shopping cart, leaving me and the next oldest sister to walk on our own. My mom instructed us to hold each other’s hands so we wouldn’t get separated. Of course, that never worked out! And I still remember vividly the panic I felt the first time I realized that my sister was no longer with us. I remember running to my mother and crying that I had lost her. I was so upset, I was inconsolable. And then we heard the sniggering and giggling coming from within one of those round clothes racks. To my relief, my sister had not been kidnapped by a serial killer, but had simply decided to play a game of hide and seek – without telling anyone! To my dismay, however, she thought it was so funny how upset I became when we lost her, that she continued her disappearing act almost every shopping trip from then on.
There’s a certain type of desperation that comes over you when someone is lost or separated from you. In a developing news story in Thailand,12 boys and their soccer coach were found alive after 10 days stranded in a cave. Imagine the desperation those boys have to get out of that dark, enclosed space, and to be back home with their parents, in their own homes and beds. And imagine the desperation their parents and communities feel as they wait and pray that experts will devise a plan to rescue them and bring them out safely, especially before more rains come. Imagine the desperation that might prompt someone living in war-torn countries like Syria or Honduras to take their children and abandon their homes, families and friends in order to try to survive! And imagine searching for safety in a new country, only to have your children separated from you – imagine the desperation of mothers and fathers not knowing where their children have been taken, and when – or if – they’ll see them again.
There is another kind of desperation that might result in being separated or lost from loved ones – imagine the desperation of individuals and families who are affected by drug addictions, gambling or pornography; domestic or sexual assault; bullying, racism and hate crimes aimed at ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ community; or those who don’t have adequate access to food, clean water or healthcare. In the book, “Leading Beyond the Walls,” UM pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that the biggest problems facing our society today are at their core spiritual problems. Policies, laws and criminal justice can only help so much. Pastor Adam says, “the real solution must address the condition of the human heart; it must break hearts of stone, transform hate into love, and offer healing and deliverance to those who are slaves to ideas, or their upbringing, or their addictions.”  What people really need is to be found and restored into community and relationships.
In our scripture today, Jesus declares that he has “come to seek out and to save the lost.” As I give you a moment of silence, think about someone you know who is experiencing a kind of desperation in their life today. Does she or he know Jesus? Have you prayed with or for him? Have you shared your faith with her? I encourage you to lift them in prayer as we pray together…
I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like thine can peace afford.
I need thee, o I need thee; every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee. (UMH 397)
Last week, I shared with you how I left the church for a time during my college years. And during those years, I would say that there were certainly times I experienced a desperate longing to believe in something that would fill the emptiness and loneliness in my life. There was even a period when I considered myself ‘spiritual but not religious.’
According to a Pew Research study released in April, only a slim majority of Americans, 56%, still believe in the God of the Bible.  According to this information, Christians can no longer assume that their friends or neighbors believe in God, if they believe in any higher power at all. And over 60% of those living in our community are either unchurched or de-churched.  In trying to determine why so many Americans reject religion today, many of them cite the fact that they simply no longer believe in God, or that they see too many negative Christian stereotypes. In light of the social problems I mentioned earlier, it there certainly seems to be a link between the declining number of people who have a personal relationship with Jesus, and the increase in the instances of addictions, violence, systemic poverty and racism, and policies and practices that place corporate profits above economic justice in our society today.
But, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.
As a music major in college, I was in a chamber choir that presented a Madrigal Dinner near the end of every fall semester. At this dinner, we dressed in medieval costumes and sat around an ornate table singing nativity carols interspersed with classic Christmas poems and the scriptures that told the story of Jesus’ birth. And each year as we would sing those carols, and I would hear the story told, something welled up inside me – I think it was hope: Hope that perhaps the story was true; hope that there really was a God who loved us enough to come down and experience the same pains of life that I knew; hope that Jesus came to bring news for the poor and the outcast. Again, there is a kind of desperation that one feels when you are lost or separated from someone you love.
What I eventually came to understand, in the theology of incarnation, is that God experiences a kind of desperation, as well, in being separated from us. The incarnation – that God became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus – is God’s desperate act to pursue us and bring us back into community. In the gospel of Luke, we learn that from Jesus’ birth, God comes to dwell, not with the religiously righteous, but with the lowly shepherds, the lepers, the sinners and the tax collectors – in other words, the outcast. In chapter 4:16-21, Jesus reveals this mission:
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke’s gospel is centered around the idea that Jesus came to bring salvation in the form of liberation and restoration – to seek out and to save the lost. Jesus’ teachings and healing acts aim to bring those who have been cast out by society back into community. He heals the unclean, eats with tax collectors and sinners, breaks unjust laws, and teaches a counter-cultural message of loving your enemies and considering everyone a neighbor. Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus sees those who have been marginalized and has compassion on them. And then he sets to work righting the wrong.
In chapters 9 – 19, what is considered the “heart of Luke,” Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, as he is accompanied by his disciples and other followers, he encounters crowds who come to him for healing, or to hear his teachings, as well as his adversaries, the Pharisees, who grumble and object to his methods of ministry. In these chapters, Jesus shares the story of the Good Samaritan – an ethic group despised by the pious Pharisees – to teach us about loving our neighbors. He himself eats with ‘those people’ – tax collectors and sinners – and then share through parables the true meaning of hospitality, which includes the hungry, the homeless, the foreigner, the needy and the weak. Jesus offers healing to those whom the rest of society have ignored, neglected and despised – the leper, the blind beggar, women with ‘women issues’, and the mentally unwell. In each of these instances, the Pharisees and others in the crowd grumble at his methods. So Jesus tells them three important stories to drive home his mission to seek out and to save the lost:
4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4-7)
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
Then, he tells an even lengthier story of a son who takes his inheritance early, runs off and squanders it all, then returns, utterly defeated, and begs for his father to take him in as a servant. Instead, the good father gives him a robe and a ring, and orders the servants to kill the fatted calf, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15: 11-24)
That brings us back to the Zacchaeus. Like many of the others whom Jesus encountered earlier in Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus makes an effort to see Jesus. We know that he was the chief tax collector in Jericho – and we also know that the practices of tax farming in the ancient world often involved very corrupt practices of squeezing more than was fair from the locals in order to pocket anything that wasn’t given to Rome. So perhaps Zacchaeus has realized that his wealth is not enough to satisfy the emptiness and loneliness in his life. Maybe he is feeling guilty about the impact of his extortion on his neighbors and community; maybe the conflict of knowing what is right in contrast to the way he has been living his life has caught up with him, and he’s decided he just can’t live like this any more. It seems to me that Zacchaeus has become desperate. And he must have been desperate to see Jesus if he was willing to make a spectacle of himself to the crowds of people by climbing up a tree in order to catch a glimpse, even just a glimpse of Jesus.
And Jesus notices Zacchaeus, and calls him by name, urgently expressing his desire to dine with yet another tax collector. At the crowds’ grumbling this time it is Zacchaeus himself who takes the first step toward restoration, offering to give half of his possessions to the poor and make restitutions to anyone he has cheated. Sometimes, when the outcast have an encounter with Jesus, it changes their life! Not only does Jesus pronounce salvation on Zacchaeus, but he reminds the crowds that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham – one of them – and he thus helps to restore Zacchaeus to his community. Jesus came to seek out and to save the lost!
It’s a worthwhile side note to point out here that the crowd themselves became a barrier to this sinner being able to encounter Jesus. They had pre-conceived ideas about who was and was not ‘worthy’ of Jesus’ time, attention and fellowship. They grumbled and objected to Jesus’ methods of ministry. And in the end, when Jesus finally entered Jerusalem for the last time, they ultimately rejected his Ways altogether – Jesus and his teachings became the outcast: despised and rejected and executed on a cross.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) There are desperate, hurting people all around us. They are longing to encounter a healing and reconciling Love who sees and notices their pain, who is just as desperate to be in relationship with them, and who longs to see their lives restored. My own personal relationship with Jesus has changed my life! Think back to that person I asked you to name silently at the beginning of the sermon.. how can you share this message with them?
Again, I ask you to lift them in this time of prayer…
I need thee every hour, teach me thy will;
And thy rich promises in me fulfill.
I need thee, O I need thee; every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee. (UMH 397)
 Hamilton, Adam. Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched. Abingdon Press.