A Church Planting Theology?

Posted: October 31, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21C. 2019
Luke 19:1-10

‘A Church Planting Theology?’

 There are some stories in the Bible that are both a challenge and really good to tell. One such made-up story, is the story of Zacchaeus. According to Luke our storyteller, Zacchaeus was one of those people despised by most yet Jesus seemed to like being around them. Zacchaeus stood barely five feet tall with his shoes off and was the least popular man in Jericho. I was reminded here, of a theory I had when an apprenticed motor mechanic. The theory was that short people drove the biggest, loudest and most ostentatious cars as if trying to compensate for their stature. An Unfair assumption to be sure but often borne out by their actions. Short Zacchaeus was head tax-collector for Rome in the district and had made such a killing out of it that he was the richest man in town as well as the shortest. When word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through, he shinnied up into a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of other people’s heads, and that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “get down out of there in a hurry. I’m spending tonight with YOU” (Luke 19:5), whereupon all Jericho snickered up their sleeves as if think this guy Jesus didn’t have better sense than to invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole. But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zacchaeus was taken so completely aback by the unexpectedness and for him the honour of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus was absolutely delighted. “Today salvation has come to this house,” he said.

The challenge in this story is this is more powerful a statement than much we have heard to date. Here we have a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway. The ultimate in hospitality and as my title suggests the nature of church planting, In traditional speak, it is the sinners who come in, it is the lost, the deprived, the poor and the destitute who are welcomed.

Picking up our scripture we find Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition. We have Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.

Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? What is it that makes them valued? It sure isn’t for what they do. Maybe we can say at least that these guys are treasured less for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them to be because ultimately, of course; it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine!” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein,” adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.

It’s hard to put a label on Zacchaeus.  Tradition has it that he’s short; he’s rich; he’s probably none too popular with his neighbours. Maybe he was picked on in the school ground when he was a young kid because he was small. Maybe that’s why he so gladly took up the position as a toll collector, working his way to the top of the toll collecting franchise. The bloke who skimmed off the top of those who skimmed off the top!

Let’s go back to our text for a bit. Let’s imagine the scene… There’s a line of people gathered along Main street. The sun is beating down. There’s a rumour that this Jesus from Nazareth has given sight back to the old blind fellow who lives down by the city gate. Zacchaeus, curious, and not wanting to miss the show, looks for some spot where he can get a good look at the procession as it makes its way through Jericho and on up to Jerusalem. He asks a few people if he could squeeze past, but he soon realizes his lack of popularity makes it difficult to request favours for a ring-side seat. There’s no way the crowd is going to let him in even for a quick look-see. He looks around him at the trees that lined the street and runs towards one as fast as he can. He grasps a lower branch firmly in his hands and pulls himself up. As he continues on his climb up the tree he hears someone call out “Hey look at the little bird” followed by bursts of laughter. Someone else calls out that his ‘nose looks like a beak’ and the crowd erupts into more hoots and laughter. Zacchaeus looks down at the faces in the crowd staring up at him. “Peasants” he thinks to himself, as he makes himself comfortable… As comfortable as one can while straddling a branch four meters off the ground.

In a few minutes the Jesus-procession makes its way around a corner. Suddenly, Jesus stops. People bump into one another in surprise as the momentum of the crowd is broken. Jesus looks around him, his brow furrowed. Then he lifts his head skyward, or treeward to be more precise, and aims his gaze directly towards Zacchaeus. “Give him hell preacher!” someone yelled out as Jesus opened his mouth to speak. “Tell him to wise up! “Clean up his act! “Get out of town!” But instead Jesus said: “Hey Zacchaeus, get down here!”

Again the crowd looks up at the little man on his branch. Zacchaeus scans the crowd, taking pride and delight in being singled out by this ‘intelligent’ rabbi. “Indeed, he must be a prophet”, Zacchaeus thinks to himself, “for he has recognised my position and authority in this city over this rabble.” As Zacchaeus tries to scramble down out of the tree, he feels its branches tugging at his cloak. He’s a little self-conscious now. It’s one thing to have all the attention focused on you because of your authority or your wealth. It’s another to have everyone’s attention, and I mean everyone’s attention, directed at you, while you are trying to scramble down a tree.

He reaches the ground and brushes himself off, trying to straighten himself out so as to appear with some dignity. “Come on, let’s go,” Jesus commands with good humour. “We’re hungry.” That’s when everything went quiet. A buzz went around the crowd. “For a smart young preacher, he sure doesn’t know much about people!” “He can’t be serious! “There isn’t a bigger crook in the country!  But he was serious.  This was no joke.  It caused a scandal. We do an injustice to the story if we reduce it to the cheap category of a wonder conversion. This story is not about a so-called ‘soul being saved’, as one popular biblical translation puts it, but about transformation with revolutionary implications… It was a scandal because it spoke to people who cried out for justice, and it was heavily biased towards compassion and change. Barry Robinson in his sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way:  He says: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. This is what upset the balance.  This is what was too unsettling to the way things were. The labeling of people to define the boundaries was not important to Jesus. He was more interested in welcoming people aboard the Way. Jesus was about: finding and rejoicing and making whole. So, come down from your isolation. Come beyond your boundaries. Stand on table tops, climb trees, and go out on a limb so that you can see where to be. Where to join the kin-dom. Perhaps that’s the nature of church planting. Amen.


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