LEARNING FROM A TAX COLLECTOR
Luke 19, 1-10
Several years ago as a summer Sunday School series during Fellowship Hour, I created lessons based on episodes of the “Andy Griffith Show.” I called them, “Messages from Mayberry!” One episode I could have used, but didn’t, is the one called “Citizen’s Arrest.” I still laugh when I watch it. Gomer Pyle reports deputy Barney Fife for making a U-Turn in the middle of the street when he wasn’t’ on official business. The Christian message, when I write the lesson for it, is U-Turn. U-Turns in life look like repentance; some people have turned away from Jesus, and then turned back to Jesus. Others never found Jesus until later. There are famous people who have turned their life around when they found Christ. Actor Kirk Cameron was in the television show “Growing Pains” that aired from 1985-1992. He was an atheist. But he converted to Christianity as an older teenager and now has written Christian books and starred in Christian films. Did you know that although baptized as a child, author C. S. Lewis abandoned Christ and the faith as a teenager? He continued to be an agnostic until age thirty when he began to write his influential books like Mere Christianity, the Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. Novelist Anne Rice, author of Memnoch the Devil among other books, started her life in Catholicism and left it, describing herself to others as an atheist. Then in 1998 she returned to the Church and to Christ, writing her most strikingly different series of books, called “Christ the Lord.” Her journey, however, was circuitous. Citing differences with the Catholic Church on social issues, she now believes in God but calls herself as a “secular humanist.” That a hard comparison to square! Maybe her journey is actually not a U-Turn, but a lot of curves and bends in the road! Finally, there is another example of a U-Turned life: John Newton, the writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” As a grown man he was a sailor and slave trader. At one point in his life, he had a conversion experience, actually becoming a priest and an abolitionist. Talk about a turnaround! He wrote “Amazing Grace” for use in a New Year’s Day sermon based on 1Chronicles 17: 16-17 and preached on January 1, 1773. New Year’s Day! No football bowl games on TV then! And people came to hear him! What a great day for U-Turns! Newton wrote: “When Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, we endeavored to shut him out, till he overcomes us by the power of his grace.” [Glory to God: A Companion. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 616.] What great examples of U-Turns those are.
But the Bible has U-Turn stories too. God must relish those who are lost and then found. In Luke 15 as I mentioned last week, Jesus told the story of the prodigal son, a young man who insulted his father, asking for his inheritance before his father has died, and then he waste it, coming back to grovel in a classic U-Turn. And today, the story of the tax collector is another U-Turn story. Listen to what Christian Educator Donald Griggs and Professor Paul Walaskay, both of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote about this wee little man named Zacchaeus:
Traders moving goods in and out of Judea were required to stop at the border to pay a customs tax. This made Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, a relatively wealthy man. …To the average peasant, he was rich. And was also short! [Luke’s Gospel from Scratch, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011, p. 41.]
Jesus asked to go to his house that day. Did he have a plan when he said those words? We don’t know what Jesus thought, but we know what Jesus did: he transformed Zacchaeus. The Bible is sparse on details, but we know that in his home, breaking the bread for a meal while townspeople looked in, something powerful happened. When Jesus sits at table with others, extraordinary things often happen. In Luke chapter 24, for example, when the risen Lord Jesus was on the road to Emmaus, Jesus was invited to stay with two men since the sun was going down. As Jesus sat with two men for a meal, Jesus lifted the bread, and blessed and broke it. Then the eyes of the other two were opened, and they recognized him! Wonderful things happen when Jesus is at table with others, as he is with us today. What happened at the table of the wee little man in Jericho? Zacchaeus changed into a generous and—dare we say—grace-filled man! What a difference from who he was!
Today, wonderful things can happen to us too.
First, we are connected by mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. You can remember them, let their names roll through your mind, and feel as if you are among them.
Second, there might be some here today who are ready for a U-Turned life: all you may have needed is a description of what that can be like—you know, the before and after—and to know that you are in good company if you choose to make the change.
And third, in today’s prayer, Radford will be praying for you; at the end of the service, you can speak with one of us about any decision you make. Jesus is with us today. How do I know that? Jesus said in Matthew 18: 20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” If you renew your desire to, as pop singer Anne Murray once wrote, “put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters,” doubts can be replaced by faith; discouragement can be replaced by hope; and anger can be replaced by love, all because of God’s amazing grace. God is with you; the Lord is on your side. May that knowledge still any troubled souls today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 3, 2019