Welcome Everyone, Celebrate Diversity, and Recognize the Holy in All People
Today we hear a reading from the Gospel of Luke, describing an encounter Jesus has as he journeys toward Jerusalem just weeks before his death and resurrection, making it a compelling story as we embark on our journey toward Easter. Luke 19:1-10 (CEV):
1Jesus was going through Jericho, 2where a man named Zacchaeus lived. He was in charge of collecting taxes and was very rich. 3-4Jesus was heading his way, and Zacchaeus wanted to see what he was like. But Zacchaeus was a short man and could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree. 5When Jesus got there, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” 6Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed Jesus.
7Everyone who saw this started grumbling, “This man Zacchaeus is a sinner! And Jesus is going home to eat with him.”
8Later that day Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.” 9Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today you and your family have been saved, because you are a true son of Abraham. 10The Son of Man came to look for and to save people who are lost.”
We also reflect on the first of “Seven Core Rocks Upon which Orleans United Church Is Built” – To welcome everyone (without discrimination), to celebrate diversity (honouring the differences among us as a benefit to the life and health of our faith community), and to recognize the holy in all people (especially those who appear not to be the most loveable). This first core rock of Orleans United reminds me so much of our bible story today.
This is how I imagine it. Jesus is getting closer and closer to Jerusalem, to the culmination of his life and work on earth when he passes through one of the smaller outlying villages along the way. Among the people who are crowded along that narrow roadway include Jesus’ closest friends and followers, and his supporters from Jericho who have formed a bit of a welcoming committee, and of course the curious who simply want to see what’s going on, maybe because they’ve heard some of the hype about this teacher, healer, and prophet named Jesus. And as they’re walking, Jesus sees that one of those onlookers has climbed a tree to get a better look. That makes Jesus smile at people’s curiosity and enthusiasm, so he leans close to one of the town-folk on the welcoming committee who’s walking beside him at the moment and asks, “Who’s that up the tree?” But the reaction was anything but joyful – “Him? That SOB. His name’s Zacchaeus – Rome’s man in town – a dirty cheating tax collector who’d steal the shirt off your back.” But Jesus keeps smiling and nodding and seems genuinely intrigued. So when the crowd finally reaches the tree, Jesus looks up into the eyes of the man and shouts, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” And that’s precisely when this story becomes gospel worthy … and where it intercepts us on our way toward Easter, and compels us to take a closer look.
This gospel story can be interpreted through different lenses … focussing of our repentance and Jesus’ forgiveness, or on God seeking and saving the lost, or even on how our lives can be transformed by God’s love expressed through human kindness. But as a story of the ‘spirit and power of welcome in community,’ it quite simply takes my breath away. Because simply put, God’s goodness in life can only ever be fully realized by a shared welcoming spirit.
There’s a lot of welcoming going on in this story – the crowd welcoming Jesus into town, Jesus welcoming Zacchaeus by reaching up to him, Zacchaeus gladly welcoming Jesus – and even a bit of anti-welcoming-spirit to create some tension … the collective grumbling of the community when Jesus goes home with Zacchaeus, after the neighbours had planned such a lovely potluck over at the community hall (all that potato salad and coleslaw gone to waste). But what amazes me most is the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus we never hear. Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on that wall and heard what was said during those few hours together … how they welcomed each other where each of them was at (how Zacchaeus felt about being shunned by his neighbours, perhaps … or how Jesus worried about what would happen in Jerusalem, who knows?). But wherever that conversation led, because they welcomed each other, a new deeper relationship was possible, not just between them, as powerful as that must have been … but also between Zacchaeus and his family apparently, and especially between their family and the community … the possibility of restoration and becoming all they can be together… all because both Jesus and Zacchaeus were willing to stretch beyond their comfort zones and reach out to each other in a spirit of welcome.
Does that seem a bit overstated to you? Well, perhaps it is … but maybe it’s the gospel challenge for us as a church community. “Welcoming everyone” is a core rock of our congregation not because it sounds nice or because everyone expects the church to be that way (even if it’s not always). It’s a guiding conviction of Orleans United because of its capacity to stretch us beyond our comfort zones in order to rediscover a spirit of welcome that will transform and empower us with God’s presence and purpose. It’s the way we make room for God, by striving to make room for each other in worship, in learning, in reaching out and caring, in community.
And that’s what I see in our memory verse for this week. “‘Zacchaeus, hurry down. I want to stay with you today.’ Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed Jesus.” As you memorize it, take in not only the words but also receive the spirit of Christ’s invitation to us as a faith community – “‘Orleans United, hurry down. I want to stay with you today.’ Orleans United hurried down and gladly welcomed Jesus.”
And aren’t you just a little curious what transforming, inspiring conversation we will have together with Jesus in the hours and years that follow? Welcome to that conversation.
Orleans United Church
February 26, 2012
We will be considering all seven Core Rocks on the Sundays leading up to and including Easter.
Next Sunday: Build and Nurture Community in Our Church, in Our Families, in Our Neighbourhood