“I’m Going to Your House Today”

Series on Hospitality

Luke 19:1-10

It’s a sunny, seasonal day and you are among the crowds lining the streets watching a parade.  Colorful floats with creative themes roll by as people walking alongside hand out goodies and flyers.  A mounted unit featuring uniformed people on horseback passes by to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.  Drums announce the approaching marching band, which strikes up a rousing march tune as the light reflects off polished instruments.  And then, finally, comes the unit featuring the parade marshal, the guest of honor.  Maybe it’s a local celebrity, an important political leader, your favorite sports hero or musician, or a cultural icon.  As their float rolls by, the guest spots you in the crowd, locks eyes with you and says in a voice you hear as you read their lips, “I’m going to your house today, after this parade. Be ready!”

What would you be feeling?  Excitement, nervousness, anxiety, worry.  Would you feel embarrassed at the condition of your house, because it’s not clean or organized enough?  Would you be panicked, thinking about what you would serve such an important guest?  Would you want to leave immediately so you could get home to make a few last-minute preparations?  Or would you feel honored and humbled that such an important person would want to spend time with you?  Maybe you would feel a combination of all of these.

Now imagine that this person were not just a sports hero, political figure or celebrity. Imagine that the person going to your house today is Jesus, the Son of God and Lord, in the flesh. Do you have some of the same thoughts or anxieties? How does your reaction change?

We’re continuing to explore our Christian call to offer hospitality.  Last week, Pastor Becky reminded us that when we offer hospitality to others, we might be entertaining angels and receiving blessings as we seek to bless the other.

We also reviewed our hospitality strategy, known as 5-10-Link.  It’s important for everyone to put this strategy into action, so that no one who enters our building ever leaves without having been made to feel welcome.  To refresh us:

  • 5 refers to time – During the five minutes before worship and five minutes right after worship, we’ll notice guests or others we don’t know well, and engage them in conversation before we talk to our familiar church friends.
  • 10 refers to space – Anytime we are in the building, we are to engage anyone within 10 feet of us, or the equivalent of about 3-4 rows of pews.
  • Link means we’ll help the guest connect to someone else around something they share in common by introducing them. If we can’t find a particular connection, we’ll remember that what we share in common is that we have all been created in God’s own image and are loved by God.

Our Gospel reading today is a story about hospitality and its effect on others.  Jesus actually practiced amazing hospitality in this story, and yes, it involved inviting himself to someone’s house.

Jesus, his disciples and the crowds that followed him were making their way into and through the city of Jericho.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross.  Among the residents of Jericho was a man named Zacchaeus, who wanted to see Jesus.  (We’ll return to that a little later.)

Let’s think about Zacchaeus for a moment.  We know from the story that he was short in height, which prompted him to run ahead of the crowd and climb a tree.  By the way, in his first-century culture, it was undignified for an adult either to run or to climb a tree.  Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus.

His occupation was chief tax collector.  As the chief tax collector for Jericho, Zacchaeus was in charge of the one of the three largest tax collection posts in Palestine.  As the chief tax collector, he did not collect taxes himself, but rather hired local subcontractors who collected taxes in region or a particular kind of tax.  Throughout the Roman Empire, everyone paid a 1% income tax. (Sounds pretty good, right?) But there was many more taxes:  import and export taxes, tolls, sales taxes, emergency taxes, crop taxes (10% of grain, 20% of wine, fruit and olive oil), and taxes for wars or special government projects.  How could a citizen or businessperson keep up?  Tax collectors made their money by padding the taxes they charged or by outright extortion.  Zacchaeus became rich on the backs of his own people.  Among the Jews, Jewish tax collectors were hated as the worst kind of sinners who cheated their own people and collaborated with the Roman enemy. Zacchaeus was dishonest, immoral and a traitor!

Zacchaeus would not have had any friends, and anyone pretending to be his friend would have done so in order to get something from him. He would have been protected by Roman soldiers against rebels and religious zealots who wanted to assassinate him.  He would have been excluded from his community.  So it’s not impossible to imagine that the residents of Jericho who saw Zacchaeus running and perched in a sycamore tree might have been laughing or even thinking, “We should cut down that ugly tree with him in it!”

So when Jesus entered town at the head of the parade of people, whom did Jesus see and speak to?  It wasn’t the local synagogue leader, or the mayor, or the leading citizen.  He saw the despised, corrupt, treasonous chief tax collector of Jericho, Zacchaeus.  And Jesus told him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I’m going to your house today.”

By inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus modeled the hospitality of the Kingdom of God in action.  Jesus connected with a man who was an outsider in his community.  He reached out to the one everyone else avoided and rejected.  Jesus invited him into the intimate fellowship of staying at his house with him and declared him to be a son of Abraham, that is, a beloved member of God’s own family.

This wasn’t the first time Jesus reached out to the rejected. Earlier, he had received the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, pronouncing her forgiven and saved (Luke 7:36-50), over the objections of his host who was a religious leader.  Jesus regularly welcomed tax collectors and sinners, who listened intently to his stories and lessons, over the grumbling and objections of the self-righteous religious people and their leaders (Luke 15:1-2).  On this occasion, the citizens of Jericho murmured against Jesus spending time with the sinner Zacchaeus.

Every society and culture has its groups of people who are “in” and those who are “out.”  Church congregations, because they consist of people who are still on their journey toward being perfected in the love of God and neighbor, often reflect their cultural norms rather than the values of the Kingdom of God.  Congregations sometimes struggle to truly welcome people who are “different” in some way.  Churches might build invisible walls to keep out people of different races or ethnic groups; they might look down on someone who doesn’t fit into a certain social group, education level, or economic class.  (The church might be say, “We’re happy to help them with food or clothes, but we don’t want those people here.”)  Like much of American society today, the church divides itself along political lines as well, so we really only want red or blue or purple or green attendees. Or is it the addict, ex-con, very rich or very poor, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, the immigrant, the child or the elder who is excluded?  Who is it that we might or actually do exclude at St. Andrew’s?  Actually, the only way for us to deal with this question is, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to look inside our own hearts and to answer individually:  Who is it that I exclude, that I fail to offer hospitality and welcome to?  Or who might I see at church that would make me uncomfortable? According to the gospel, these are the very people Jesus welcomed and shared fellowship with.  And many of their lives were changed by Jesus’ welcome, just like Zacchaeus.

Today you might have come here feeling excluded, left out, unsure where you fit in.  Jesus wants you to know that he welcomes you and loves you.  Despite what the world may label you, he wants you to know that you are a child of God already and right now.  He invites you into relationship with him and his people.  I hope you have received that kind of welcome here today; if not, I ask you to please forgive us, to recognize that all of us are also on journeys to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, to give us another chance and come back again.

There’s one other aspect of this story I want to call to our attention.  Have you ever wondered how Zacchaeus might have heard about Jesus?  As an outcast in Jericho, no one would have talked to him.  So what compelled him to humble himself by running and climbing a tree?  Luke doesn’t tell us, but we can speculate.  Among Jesus’ 12 disciples were men of many occupations and backgrounds.  One of them named Levi or Matthew was a tax collector.  He likely would have known Zacchaeus and had a business relationship with him.  So it’s possible that Matthew reached out to Zacchaeus and told him about what Jesus was doing, including in his own life.  It’s also possible that, as they approached Jericho, Matthew told Jesus about his connection to Zacchaeus, so that Jesus would also have been keeping an eye out for him.  It might have been through Matthew that Zacchaeus had the opportunity to meet Jesus. Matthew made the link between Jesus and Zacchaeus.

Like Matthew, you and I have people we are connected to in life.  They might be friends, relatives, associates or neighbors.  Some of them may already know Jesus, but some of them don’t.  These are the Zacchaeuses of our lives.  Who is Zacchaeus to you?  Think of them right now.  I invite you to begin praying for your Zacchaeus, for God’s blessing on them.  Then look for an opportunity to share the Jesus you know with them.  Finally, invite them to church, Sunday school, Bible study or activity that will help them connect to Jesus and to his church.

What does the story of Zacchaeus teach us about hospitality?  Hospitality does not simply begin once a person walks into our building.  If we wait for them to come before we welcome them, it might never happen.  Instead, radical, Biblical hospitality begins outside the walls of St. Andrew’s in our everyday lives, as we share Jesus with people we already know and invite them to join us in life with him, and as we reach out with the love of Jesus to the very people our world would exclude and truly welcome them into Christian fellowship and community.  Then we’ll see lives changed and the Kingdom of God revealed in our midst.

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