Saturday, November 11, 2017

“Dream with Jesus – And Live”

            This week we continue our reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the statistical decline experienced by the institutional Church in the U.S.  We have also discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  This Sunday, November 12th, we will look at “Vision” from a different perspective.  The question I would like for us to address asks, “What is Jesus’ Vision for the Future Church?”

            To guide our reflections on Jesus’ Vision for the future Church, we will use the story of Zacchaeus the “chief tax collector” in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10.  To truly understand this passage of scripture, we must begin with a look at the social and political context of Jesus’ ministry.  At the time of Christ’s ministry, the people of Israel were conquered and oppressed by the Roman Empire and its legions of soldiers.  From the Roman perspective, the land of Israel was just a backwater country to be taxed and exploited.  And so, the Romans taxed everything.  There were indirect sales taxes, tolls for roads and the use of various public goods, tariffs, customs fees, taxes, taxes, and more taxes. 

Collecting all of these taxes required a great deal of time and energy, so the Romans came up with an ingenious scheme.  They co-opted entrepreneurs from among the Jewish people themselves to collect all of the taxes.  These Jewish entrepreneurs were called “chief tax collectors.”  Each was given a region of the country and told how much revenue they needed to raise from the various tax schemes for the occupying Roman Empire.  The “chief tax collectors” then hired others to help them and they collected the taxes.  Now, the Romans never offered the “chief tax collectors” a salary or any form of payment for this service.  Instead, it was just assumed that the “chief tax collectors” would lie and cheat their fellow Jewish countrymen and make a profit by over-charging on the taxes.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector for the area around the town of Jericho.  Naturally, he was widely despised by everyone in Jericho.  Put yourself in the shoes—or, rather sandals—of someone living in Jericho.  Here is a man who has betrayed his own people and his own country by openly collaborating with the occupying Romans.  This man has probably cheated you on all the taxes that you owe to the occupying Empire.  And yet, even if he has cheated you, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you can do.  If you refuse to pay the amount of taxes, then they will simply summon a nearby Roman soldier who will beat you to a pulp—or, worse they will make you watch while they beat up your daughter or your mother or your grandfather.  And, finally, here is a man who is extremely wealthy, while you are struggling just to feed your family the bare minimum amount of food.  Just like the people in Jericho, you would hate Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was very, very, very rich.  We can assume that he lived in one of the largest houses in Jericho.  He wore the finest clothes; he ate the best foods; and he drank the finest wines.  All of his physical needs were met in abundance, and he still had more money to spend.  But, Zacchaeus was not happy; his life was empty of meaning and joy.  Despite all of his luxurious material possessions, despite all of the fine food and beautiful clothes, Zacchaeus was not happy; that is to say, Zacchaeus was not flourishing. 

            One day, Zacchaeus heard about a new teacher, a rabbi, whom people said could teach him how to have happiness and live a life of meaning and fulfillment.  So, Zacchaeus went out to see this wise, new rabbi as he passed through Jericho.  Of course, the crowd around Jesus was so great that Zacchaeus could not get a glimpse of Jesus.  And so, lifting up the hems of his rich, flowing robes, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up in a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  Biblical scholars tell us that in Israel at this time, it was considered humiliating for a grown man to run and climb trees.

            So, we can imagine how all of the crowd began to mock and poke fun at the hated Zacchaeus, as he ran down the street and climbed up into the tree.  But, Zacchaeus did it anyway.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself because he just wanted to see Jesus; he just wanted to see this new rabbi who might be able to help him live a full and joyful life.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself, but then Jesus honored him.  When Jesus got to that sycamore tree, he looked up and said:  “Zacchaeus come down out that tree now because I am going to your house for dinner.”  Jesus had lots of dinner options that evening.  He would have been welcomed in any house in Jericho that day; people would have served him their best food.  However, Jesus chose Zacchaeus.

            The Bible doesn’t tell us what went on at the meal that night.  We don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus.  But, we do know that at the end of the evening Zacchaeus promised to give half of his wealth to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone whom he had defrauded.  And, we do know that Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

            But, here’s the question:  Why did Zacchaeus promise to give away all that money when he was having dinner with Jesus?  As I said above, we really don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about that night.  However, I think that we can probably infer that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream with him about a new life, with new priorities and a new lifestyle.  Rather than focusing so much on accumulating more and more wealth, I suspect that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to focus on something much bigger than material possessions.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream boldly and be willing to take chances.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream about investing himself in Jesus’ dream for him.  That is, Zacchaeus re-committed his life to dream with Jesus about a world in which God’s Reign becomes completed—and to imagine himself as working with Jesus to establish God’s Reign.

            In his song, “Untitled Hymn,” contemporary Christian musician Chris Rice has a verse that goes like this:

O, and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can't contain your joy inside, then
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live!”[1]

            I really appreciate “Untitled Hymn” and especially this verse.  However, I would add another verse that encourages all Christians to “Dream with Jesus and Live!”  I believe that Jesus encourages each of us to dream and envision a better world, where God’s Reign is established; where we live in peace and justice with one another—and sustainably with the rest of Creation.  Further, I believe that Jesus calls upon us dedicate our lives, both individually and as faith communities to work as God’s co-creators in establishing the Divine Reign.  I believe that Jesus encourages us to dream boldly and be willing to take some chances.  This quest to establish God’s Reign is a decision to re-orient our priorities and our lifestyles, so that building God’s Kingdom becomes the central commitment in our lives.  When we make that commitment to this vision, then we will truly live.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 12th.  This Sunday, we will reflect on what it means to “Dream with Jesus—and Live.”  We will also be honoring and recognizing all of the 50-year members of our church.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 
Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Chris Rice, “Untitled Hymn” (2003), on his album, Run the Earth, Watch the Sky, accessed online at, 4 November 2017.

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