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We’re good, so why change?

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This gets complicated, doesn’t it? We think we are doing our best, forming a vital Christian community, caring for one another, seeking unity with other Christians – and then we remember that we will never say “we’ve always done it that way.”

Today’s texts – 2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19: 1-10

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

That letter to the people of Thessalonica we heard a few minutes ago – don’t you wish Paul and his friends would write a letter like that to us?

“Brothers and sisters, we must always thank God for you. This is only right because your faithfulness is growing by leaps and bounds, and the love that all of you have for each other is increasing. That’s why we ourselves are bragging about you in God’s churches. We tell about your endurance and faithfulness in all the harassments and trouble that you have put up with.”

During this stewardship season, during this time of preparation for our centennial as a congregation, we are hearing a lot of good things about Memorial UCC. I like to think that if Paul and friends knew about us, they would send us this kind of a letter. And we would feel good about that. We would feel good about ourselves. We’re doing good. Isn’t that great?

Yes, it is. But…

Old Memorial on Madison St.
Old Memorial on Madison St.

Some of you know the story of the leaders of Memorial in the 1980s who took what seemed to be a dying congregation near campus and led it to new life here in Fitchburg. They not only left behind their old building, they also left behind routines that helped define the congregation over its previous 70 years.

As they settled into Fitchburg, they said, “We’ll never say ‘We’ve always done it that way.’”

It’s a mantra that has served us well over the past quarter century. We are a congregation willing to try new things, to let go of things that no longer work, to support one another in the midst of changes in our congregational life as well as our personal lives.

“Your faithfulness is growing by leaps and bounds, and the love that all of you have for each other is increasing.”

Thanks for that, Paul and friends.

Here’s another bit of history.

95-thesesToday we are observing what is called Reformation Sunday, remembering that date on Oct. 31, 1517 – just about 500 years ago – when Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his 95 statements objecting to how religion had become a scandal. He did not do that alone – there were stirrings before and after that. But it was Luther who became the symbol of a new form of Christianity breaking free of the calcified ways of the past.

New faithfulness grew out of that, but the love Christians had for each other took quite a hit in the process. There were bloody wars and even up to our own day, bitter splits not only between Catholics and Protestants but also among the many flavors of Protestantism that emerged from the Reformation.

Paul and friends might not have been so happy about that. Neither should we.

uccA central theme of the United Church of Christ is the saying, “That they all may be one.” It reflects our commitment to reconnect the main threads of Christianity. So we can feel good about that.

Our denomination came together in 1957, bringing together several Christian traditions. But today, we see new divisions about Christians and we are challenged once again to find places we can connect with our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when we have significant disagreements. We seem to be in the midst of another reformation. These kinds of shake-ups happen every 500 years or so. We are right on schedule.

This gets complicated, doesn’t it? We think we are doing our best, forming a vital Christian community, caring for one another, seeking unity with other Christians – and then we remember that we will never say “we’ve always done it that way.”

It’s another way of saying let’s not get complacent with the way things are. When we do, things start to calcify. And then there’s a reformation.

Which takes us to the village of Jericho on an average day in the first century.

Jericho is in Palestine, the area we know as the West Bank. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, so it has experienced a lot through the millennia.

Today, it is a city under Israeli occupation. Back in the first century, it was a city under Roman occupation. The Romans enticed Jewish residents to collect taxes on behalf of the empire by letting the tax collectors keep a tidy sum for themselves.

Meet Zacchaeus. He was a Jew – a son of Abraham. He was tax collector. In fact, he was the chief tax collector, so he could skim off the taxes collected by the others. He was hated by his fellow Jews. No surprise there.

zacchaeusThe word on the street was that Jesus was coming to town. On the road toward the city, Jesus had healed a blind beggar. You can imagine how the news spread quickly and folks came out of their shops and homes to see this wandering rabbi. Clearly, Zacchaeus heard the news, too, and he scrambled up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, because, as the story tells us, “he was a short man.”

He does not say anything to Jesus from his perch in the tree. He is just watching. But Jesus addresses him by name: “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

But wait – how did Jesus know this little tax collector’s name?

My hunch is that he heard the crowd grumbling about Zacchaeus. You know how that would go. So I’m going to give you a part in this story. Turn to the person next to you and grumble a bit about Zacchaeus. Use his name. Things like, “Look at that little Zacchaeus, sitting high above us all. He thinks he’s so good.” Or “Look at that tax collector. Zacchaeus cheated me out of my money.” Or make up your own lines. Go ahead – grumble a bit about Zacchaeus.


“Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

Those words must have come as a shock to all you people grumbling on the street.

Didn’t Jesus know what a despicable man this Zacchaeus was, exploiting his own people? How could he talk to him, much less go to visit him? Couldn’t he have made Zacchaeus blind and turned him into a beggar, just like he reversed the fortune of the one outside the city?

Go ahead, grumble a little more about what Jesus is doing.


It’s hard to grumble on cue, isn’t it? But I’ll bet we all have plenty of experience with grumbling in real life. So you can imagine what it was like in that crowd.

Here’s Jesus, though, listening to the crowd enough to pick up Zacchaeus’ name, then doing what he always does – reach out to the one on the margins (or in the tree branch).

zaccaheus-1Now something interesting happens before Jesus gets to Zacchaeus’ house. The tax collector has a few things to say. And this is where the translation of Luke’s original story gets a little interesting.

In the version we heard today, Zacchaeus says: “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.” It’s something he is already doing. He wants Jesus to know that he is not really as bad as the crowd thinks he is.

In other translations, Zacchaeus says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” In these versions, Zacchaeus is changed by his encounter with Jesus.

Scripture scholars tend to favor the second interpretation – Zacchaeus was changed by his encounter with Jesus – perhaps with Jesus’ willingness to engage with him even though the crowd – his neighbors – thought he was the scum of the earth.

But notice that Zacchaeus does not change is profession. He is still a tax collector. Some people Jesus encounters give up their careers as fishermen and follow him. Levi, the tax collector, gives up his job and becomes know as Jesus’ follower named Matthew. A rich young man wants to be perfect but is unwilling to give up all he has, so he leaves in sadness.

With Zacchaeus it’s different. He is going to clean up his act, but not his role in the community.

Maybe there’s a nugget there for the rest of us. Sometimes it seems what Jesus asks of his followers seems too hard, too extreme. But Jesus adapts to what fits each person. He does not condemn Zacchaeus for not leaving his job.

He tells him he is saved and reminds the crowd that Zacchaeus is one of them – a son of Abraham. (Maybe he is reminding Zacchaeus of that too, so that he will treat his countrymen with more respect.)

What happened to the folks in that crowd? We don’t know.

What we do know is how easy it is to grumble about what he think we know about other people. Jesus took the time to get to know Zacchaeus and suddenly the tax collector’s world was changed and so was the world of those he encountered in his work.

Steven Covey is the author of the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, he reflects on our rush to judge others.

He was on a subway and in the car was a father and his kids, who were pretty much out of control. People were grumbling about the kids, judging the dad. Covey approached the man and noted how the children were disrupting the other passengers in the car.

The father explained that they were retuning from the hospital, where his wife had just died. He was still in shock and overcome with grief. His children were acting out their emotions. And Covey saw the scene in a whole new way.

Maybe the people in the crowd saw Zacchaeus in a whole new way after Jesus created that opening. Maybe we can get past the grumbling if we find ways to get to know the people that we are so quick to judge or who so upset us.

Israeli father Rami Elhanan speaking with Najwa and George Sa’adeh in the background.

Last Sunday, a few of us had a chance to hear the stories of Rami Elhanan, an Israeli father whose 14-year old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem, and of George and Najwa Sa’adeh, Palestinian parents whose 14-year old daughter, Christine, was killed by Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem when they randomly opened fire on their car.

Beyond the unspeakable pain they all experienced, they also responded when other grieving parents reached out to them and drew them into the Parents Circle, where Israelis and Palestinians together share their grief and their hopes for peace.

They went beyond judging the other, hating the other to getting to know each other and then supporting each other.

Maybe that happened to Zacchaeus as well.

It is certainly the message Paul and friends were sending to the people of Thessalonica. The last words we heard from them today are reminder that no matter how well we think we living out the message of Jesus right now, there is always the need to grow and change.

They wrote: “We are constantly praying for you for this: that our God will make you worthy of his calling and accomplish every good desire and faithful work by his power. 12 Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored by you, and you will be honored by him, consistent with the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let’s end with a hymn written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor executed by Hitler who worked so hard in his life to deepen his faithfulness and to extend his love. It’s #413, “By Gracious Powers.”