(Luke 19: 1-10)
This Sunday we kick off our Fall Stewardship season, Seeds To Branches, which concludes with Dedication Sunday on October 8th – which, as Jeremy noted earlier this morning, is earlier than in previous years. Last Sunday, Grace began our Stewardship Sermon Series, in which we look at what a spiritually-growing congregation looks like – what qualities, what habits, what characteristics make up this kind of church. Grace mentioned that we’re basing this sermon series on the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. I encourage you to get a copy and read it over the next few weeks – it’s a quick order on Amazon – read it as both a spiritual practice for this Stewardship season, as well as a primer of sorts for the sermon series.
The five practices the books talks about are:
Intentional Faith Growth (which Grace looked at last week)
Risk-Taking Mission and Service
And Radical Hospitality.
Now we are looking at these five practices of fruitful congregations in this Stewardship season because – and you’re hearing it from this pulpit, people – Stewardship is about more than just money. Let me say that again: stewardship is about more than money. Now to be clear: it is about money, it’s about our giving, our generosity. But it’s not limited to that. Everybody with me? Stewardship is about the totality of our lives and our collective witness to the resurrected Christ in our world. It is about worship. It is about generosity. It is about intentionally growing our faith. It is about taking risks in mission and service.
And it is about our hospitality – and today we find that hospitality at, of all places, the foot of a sycamore tree. So listen now to our second reading from the gospel of Luke, chapter 19, verses 1-10 – the story of Zacchaeus, the story of radical hospitality. Listen to God’s word for us today:
READ LUKE 19: 1-10
This is the Word of the Lord: thanks be to God!
Would you pray with me: Hospitable God, call us out of ourselves, call us to foot of the sycamore tree, so that when we look up, we see ourselves there, seeking Jesus out, willing to do whatever it takes to be with him. And may we hear this story with new ears, see it with new eyes, so that through it we are drawn closer to each other and closer to you. For it is in your Son’s name that we pray, and all of God’s people say, AMEN.
At the foot of a sycamore tree. That’s where we are. The sun shines brilliantly through its leafy branches, shimmering in the slight breeze that blows through. We hear a rustling up there, and it is more than the breeze. We look up and see a man in the branches. His name is Zacchaeus. We know Zacchaeus, everyone knows Zacchaeus. He is one of us, but he is a tax collector for the Roman Empire. He collects their heavy share; but collects an extra portion for himself. A very healthy portion. And it is not right, it is the embodiment of everything that is wrong in our world. He does it because he can, because he is in a position of power and privilege, and we are not. And there is nothing we can do about it.
It would be strange enough, seeing anyone above the age of twelve in that tree. But it is particularly strange seeing him up there. Power and privilege need not climb trees in order to rule over others. Which begs the question: why is Zacchaeus in this tree?
If only we could see more than the outside of this man; see deeper into his heart. For if we could, we’d see the heavy burdensome weight this man carries; the burden that comes from perpetuating injustice, a killing poison seeping in unaware through the cracks and crevices of the human soul. We do not see what he has finally come to see – that he is a drowning man, drowning in a flood of hurt and guilt and pain accumulated over years and years, drip by drip by drip…. And we do not see, like someone clinging to the last inch of dry land in a rising tide, that he longs to find something more, something different, someone different…..
Someone like Jesus, who was coming into town that day, as we all knew; all of us lining the streets to see him, to touch him, to have validated all that we had heard: the miracles, the healings, and the love, especially the love! Up until that moment, we would have never imagined that he was also seeking Jesus, seeking him out because he knew he could heal him of his hurt and guilt and pain; seeking him out to the point where he’d so willingly forego his reputation and climb high up in a sycamore tree to get a better view.
Nor could we have ever fathomed, in our wildest of wildest dreams – that Jesus would call out to him, call out when he got under that tree, as if he knew all along he’d be there. Call him by name, nonetheless, saying, Zacchaeus! Zacchaeus, come down from that tree. Why don’t we go to your house!
Forget for a moment that Jesus was going against every modicum of proper Southern decorum in inviting himself over to someone else’s house. Just put that aside, because while the cynic might think Jesus was only interested in getting a good meal here, he had something and someone else in mind. I mean, he could have extended that invitation to anyone that day. Anyone. The streets were lined with people. But it was Zacchaeus he reached out to – up in a tree, nonetheless! – and that means something.
It means that Jesus wasn’t just being nice here. Jesus was being prophetic. Prophetic in extending to a powerful, privileged, hurting, drowning man perhaps the one thing his extravagant lifestyle had not afforded him: hospitality. And not just any hospitality, but radical hospitality – what author Robert Schnase describes as that place “where Christians offer the absolute utmost of themselves, their abilities, and their creativity to welcome others into the faith.”
That’s radical hospitality, what the author says is one of the five practices of fruitful congregations. And I think it’s interesting that he uses the word “practices,” instead of something like “characteristics” or “marks” or “signs.” In other words, these are not things that come automatically. We have to work at it. Practice it. That’s his whole point with these five: worship, faith development, mission and service, generosity and hospitality. They don’t just happen. We have to work at it.
And y’all, if the statistics tell us anything about the church and radical hospitality, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
I’ve mentioned before the 2007 Barna Group study that looked at the perception of Christianity in North America, specifically among 16-39 year-olds. The findings were not very uplifting. The study found in pretty convincing fashion that the majority of folks today perceive Christians as: hypocritical, judgmental, anti-homosexual, too involved in politics, and out of touch.
So let me put this into perspective for you. Say you’re boarding a plane, you sit down next to someone, and in the small talk while taxiing to the runway, it comes up that you are a Christian. What this means, according to the study, is that before you say another word, that person will automatically assume that you are someone who holds others to standards you’re not willing to keep yourself, that you are someone who judges others, that you hate LGBTQ persons, that you desire to push a political agenda on them, and that you are out of touch with the modern world. I mean, the plane has not even gotten into position for takeoff yet, and you’re already behind the eight ball.
Have you ever found yourself in the weird position of saying to someone something to the effect of, “I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.” “So-and-so pastor does not speak for me.” You ever had that? Or have you had people say something like, “You know, you’re not like most Christians. You actually seem to want to do what Jesus says.” When we have to offer qualifiers and disclaimers about our faith, when living out our calling to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God is viewed as an anomaly, something has gone terribly wrong.
The Barna study concluded that Christians today have an “image problem.” See, I think it’s more than that. I think we have a hospitality problem. I think we are our own worst enemy when it comes to representing the welcoming, loving, compassionate, affirming, embracing Jesus who stood at the foot of that sycamore tree all those years ago.
That’s why the church needs to practice radical hospitality. Which is not the same thing as “being friendly.” And that’s a shame. Because you’re a friendly bunch, people. Most churches are. You greet each other with smiles, handshakes and hugs, kind words. You make visitors feel welcome. I have yet to see a fist fight break out in the pews or anything. You are a friendly church, and that’s great.
But we should not mistake being friendly with being radically hospitable. One is about smiles, handshakes, hugs and kind words. The other is about “offering the absolute utmost of ourselves, our abilities, our creativity to welcome others into the faith.” Radical hospitality forces us to make ourselves vulnerable and ask pretty hard questions, like: in what ways do we need to seek out the Zacchaeuses, look for the strangers both in our midst as well as outside our circles of comfort? In what ways are we living out the radical hospitality that Jesus emulated with every step of his feet, every breath of his lungs, every word of his mouth, every healing hand placed on a broken body or soul?
And why is radical hospitality so essential to the church? According to Robert Schnase, it’s because:
People need to know God loves them, that they are of supreme value, that their life has significance. People need to know the peace that runs deeper than a mere absence of conflict, the hope that sustains them even through the most painful grief, the sense of belonging that lifts them out of their own preoccupations. People need to know that life is not having something to live on, but something to live for.
And if you need an idea of what this radical hospitality really looks like, then let me share a story from noted preacher and writer Tony Campolo. A few years back, Tony was traveling to the east coast for a speaking engagement. It was late at night when he arrived, and the time change was playing havoc with his sleeping pattern, so he found himself in a run-down doughnut shop well after midnight. As Tony enjoyed his doughnut and coffee, he began to note his surroundings; and slowly it dawned on him that this doughnut shop was a hangout for some of the local sex worker crowd.
At one point his booth was adjacent to two young women in conversation; one of whom was named Agnes. He heard Agnes say to the other, You know something? Tomorrow’s my birthday. Her friend snapped back, So what d’ya want from me, huh? A birthday party? Is that what you want? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?
With a sullen look Agnes replied, Aw, come on, what do you have to be so mean for? Why do you have to put me down like that? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why in the world should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my life. Why should I have one now?
Eventually the two women got up and left, but Tony stayed. He stayed because hearing this exchange gave him idea. He found the doughnut shop owner and asked him if Agnes came in every night. He said yes. And so Tony invited him to take part in what he called a “surprise party conspiracy.” Even the owner’s wife got involved. Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes, who, other than a familiar face, was known to none of them. They planned all of this out for the next night, when Agnes would be back.
The next night came and Tony got there a little early. They spent an hour setting everything up. And when Agnes eventually walked in, Tony and all the other patrons shouted out, “Surprise!” At first Agnes was clueless – a little frightened, actually! But when she finally realized what was going on, and that all this was for her, she was gob smacked. The doughnut shop patrons sang “Happy Birthday,” and when it came time to blow out the candles Agnes struggled because of the tears rolling down her face. They were about ready to cut the cake, but Agnes asked if it would be okay if they didn’t, because she wanted to take it home just like it was, keep it for a while longer, savor the moment. So she left, carrying her uncut cake down the street as if it were the greatest of treasures.
Now, here’s the really cool part. Tony led the remaining patrons in a prayer for Agnes, after which the shop owner remarked that he did not realize Tony was a preacher. He asked what kind of church Tony came from, and Tony replied, without a hint of hesitation, “I come from a church that throws birthday parties for sex workers at 3:30 in the morning!”
The shop owner said, “No you don’t. There aren’t any churches like that. Cause if there were, I’d join it in a heartbeat.”
Now I’m not suggesting we run out and find a doughnut shop and invest in birthday supplies. What I am saying is that those folks got to experience church that night; the practice of radical hospitality. And it was transformative. It transformed Agnes. It transformed the shop owner. It transformed all those patrons.
Just as it transformed Zacchaeus all those years ago. He told Jesus after dinner, I am done with this hurt, this guilt, this pain. It has weighed me down long enough. I don’t want it anymore. And he begins to make wrongs right.
And to think – it all began because someone took time to look up and offer a simple invitation:
Zacchaeus, why don’t we go to your house?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 As told by Brian McLaren from his book The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006 pgs. 144-145).