“Dining with the Cancelled”

“Dining with the Cancelled”
A Sermon on the 8th Commandment
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
March 7, 2021 

A few years ago, the non-profit group, Doctors without Borders, put together an interactive traveling exhibit called Forced from Home which let people experience what refugees go through. And it began abruptly – you are told war has broken out in our city. You must leave immediately and you have 30 seconds to pick five items that you will take with you. Passports, food, medicine, shoes…pick five and only five. 

You get going and arrive at a make-shift raft. For $1000 a smuggler will take you across the Mediterranean. You are desperate and one of the few who can actually pay – so you do. The smugglers then hold up a life jacket. “Just looking out for you. You never know.” They are being sold for $200 which everyone knows is atrocious. But people are vulnerable in the face of fear – and they pay. 

You find out a bit later in the exhibit that your life jacket is fake. It is filled with cheap sponge-like material that soaks up the water and so if end up in the water you will actually drown sooner than if you did not have it. 

The interactive experience was born of real stories that broke a few years ago when there were, in fact, quite a number of fake, sponge-filled life jackets being sold by smugglers to refugees for a hefty sum. 

No matter how we think of the on-going refugee crisis and how it is best addressed, we feel intuitively that there is something deeply wrong with people being told to spend a huge sum of money on a product that is fake and may kill them even faster. 

Or nearer to our immediate context, we have seen in recent months pop-up corona-virus testing sites that are, in fact, not legitimate. They end up taking down social security numbers and credit card information and providing no results. 

Or again, who among us has not received email scams? Phone call scams? And often those, the phones especially, are targeted toward the elderly who are not always as adept with some technology, maybe living alone, may not have a nearby family support system, and in this place of vulnerability surrender, all kinds of financial information over the phone all while providing they are trying to protect them or provide a refund. 

In each case, the common thread is people leveraging fear and vulnerability for profit. And in each case, these stories make us rage within at this awfulness. It is stealing – and not just petty theft but with deception and lives and livelihoods on the line. 

The Hebrew word for “steal” has connotations of “stealth” in the word. “Do not steal” is a command guarding against stealing of any kind but nods especially at those who would steal while appearing to look good. Hiding the whole thing. 

More, in its original context, it was a command that was understood to speak especially and directly against kidnapping – stealing children or enslaved people or people who then became enslaved. This is to say…a significant aim was not simply petty theft, but the kind of stealing that… 

Threatened lives. 

Altered lives. 

The kind of stealing that when we see it unfolding out can make us so angry. 

This is the kind of stealing that Zacchaeus was up to. 

Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, which in his time meant he was one of the many arms of the Roman Empire – collecting on behalf of a ruthless, unjust Empire. And it was common knowledge that these tax collectors often over-charged and then skimmed that extra money off the top of the collections for themselves. They preyed on the fear and vulnerability of the poor because they had the Roman Empire backing them. 

This made an already impoverished populace that much more constrained. And so, for the common person, the tax collector was absolutely reviled for who they represented and the stealing that they did. 

That Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and therefore ‘rich,’ made him all the more reviled. Scholars have suggested that Zacchaeus’ ‘short stature’ is emblematic of how he was viewed in the community as people thought quite low of him. 

Well, one day this wealthy, reviled thief is curious about Jesus. We’re not told why Zacchaeus is curious. Presumably, he had caught wind of Jesus ’teachings and healings and power. Since Zacchaeus is short and cannot see over the crowds, he finds he must climb a Sycamore tree just to find a line of sight. And Jesus sees him up there. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

That is just like Jesus. 

You start to show some interest in Jesus… 

Maybe you start to open yourself in prayer or read an article or two…. 

Maybe you click on the Youtube link for the first time in some time… 

Or maybe you click on it every week but like the anonymity…this takes sitting on the back pew to a whole new level so we can watch quietly, leave when we want… 

You show some interest in Jesus but honestly, you’re just peaking in. And then Jesus himself sees us and invites himself right in – just as we are, not when we are ‘ready’ or have the place ‘pulled together.’ 

Well, the crowds grumble. 

  • Because in this case, Jesus has just chosen to take up company with the wealthy thief rather than the poor victims.
  • The smuggler rather than the refugees.
  • The corona-virus profiteers rather than the weary hospital staff and those who are ill.
  • The one who got rich off the scheme, the skimming, the stealing…not the ones suffering the loss.

Of course, it’s not that Jesus doesn’t love all those other groups, it’s just that right now in this moment of all the people Jesus could really focus on and be with: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” The crowds grumble – and we get it. 

Can you imagine if Jesus took up precious time over the table in our time with some of the richest, most-wrong-headed, or unjust people – and I am sure we all have our lists. 

But Jesus has yet to move according to our rules and expectations. By definition, grace is undeserved. And grace is always made abundant precisely where it should not show up. Jesus walks through Zacchaeus’ door – and knowing how hospitality worked in that culture this definitely involved a meal. 

Jesus is coming to spend time as a guest of the rich thief…but never be fooled. If Jesus comes over, is not going to remain the guest. This moment in the story reminds me of that wonderful insight from C.S. Lewis about how God works: 

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. 

But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? 

The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” 

  • How would you know if such remodeling and renovation were underway? 
  • What would be the sign that Jesus had invited himself in as a guest among the church and then soon had become the chief project manager for the whole space and all the new spaces?
  • What would be the sign that a house is definitely under renovation by Jesus?

Jesus invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house, and at some point in that time Zacchaeus makes a declaration: “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.” 

It should be noted that the Jewish law did prescribe that if you stole from or defrauded someone, you were expected not only to pay that back but to do so with significant interest. 

However, what Zacchaeus is declaring is far more generous than the law. He is not just no longer stealing, not just paying it back with interest, he is proactively giving above and beyond any legal or social expectations and simply showing forth abundant generosity. 

Or, another way of putting it, he is no longer breaking the law, nor is he merely keeping the letter of the law, but he is now living into the Spirit of the law. The heart of the 8th commandment is not only “Do not steal,” but a true living into the spirit of the law is giving freely, fully, generously. 

Elsewhere Jesus puts it this way: “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” Look to where you spend your money, your gifts – that will tell you what is going on with the heart.” 

Zacchaeus’ transformation is seen most clearly not when he declares “I Believe in you Jesus” or “I understand all of your teachings, Jesus” but… “Because of your generous grace who would be with one like me, there is where my treasure now goes.” 

One of the most telling signs that a person or a church does not just know about Jesus has not just learned about Jesus, are not just sitting up in the tree or the periphery pews pondering Jesus…the telling sign that Jesus himself has rudely invited himself and begun renovating… generosity. 

Generosity. More and more the treasure starts to go towards the things of God and God’s kingdom. And so more and more they discover it is not just better to give than to receive, but the giving really is the thing. Has Jesus invited himself in recently? 

In this past year in particular – has there been some specific renovations, some walls torn down, perhaps some new construction underway? 

  • Maybe… 
  • We thought ourselves generous…and yet, what is Jesus doing breaking down our storage barn out back and opening us to offer more and more in ways we’ve never let ourselves? It’s frightening these walls coming down, but we wonder if it’s also freeing…
  • We thought ourselves fairly patient on the whole…and yet, with all that has tested us this past year, it seems like Jesus breaking down the walls in that room called ‘patience’ so as to make it far more generous and expansive than we ever thought that room need be.
  • We thought ourselves kind and hospitable…and yet, with all the people on that side of the aisle, that side of the issue, that side of the family that we have had to deal with this past year, it seems it like Jesus is actively breaking down our fence that had been so convenient for keeping those folks out of sight and out of mind…we really did not think the courtyards of kindness needed space enough and table enough to include all of them.
  • We thought ourselves just…and yet, confronted more clearly during the pandemic the gap between rich and poor, the disparities that exist so often along racial and socio-economic lines, it feels like Jesus is pulling the very facade of our our home. That we might see more clearly. Lament more honestly. Engage more actively.
  • We thought ourselves humble – and yet amid a pandemic and civic unrest and division and snow and ice of epic proportion come our way, that tiny emergency room we went when we really had to rely on God above all else – well, it sure seems somehow is taking a sledgehammer to all four walls so that it is never again a humble reliance on God is not a wall-off reality for emergencies only but actually always central to the whole house.

Where has the Master Carpenter been at work this past year? 

And if we can name a way or two Jesus has invited himself in, then we need to pause for a moment and consider that if Jesus has come our way, then we have more in common with Zaccheaus than we would usually want to admit or see. 

We, too, need grace to meet us and expand us…Indeed how often the thing we cannot stand in another also actually speaks to something we cannot stand in ourselves…and thanks be God Jesus has no problem being a guest in such space. 

Speaking of renovation, it is difficult to preach on the church property right now without being quite mindful of just how much a mess it is. 

Some of our property committee members and staff have been in and out recently as they coordinate the effort to clean up and fix and restore and update and all the rest that comes after a good portion of our main building took water from burst pipes during the snow and ice three weeks ago. 

And all of this comes on top of an already very trying and exhausting year. 

And I think for some it almost feels like, “My goodness, God, what do you have against us?! Are we cursed?! What is going on!?” “Is this is a sign?!” 

But then I think, when Jesus draws near to the house, he starts “knocking about” in ways that can hurt abominably. 

I am not at all saying that Jesus went and made the mess in the church…but at the same time, I do wonder if – in the strangest of ways – the current state of our church property isn’t something of a sign, a visual, a testimony. 

And what it declares is this: in precisely the year where we have spent the most time separated from one another, in precisely the year where the wilderness wandering has been more acute than most of us can remember for some time…precisely in that year, Jesus has been incredibly active. 

He has moved in all-the-more more fully, all-the-more deeply, all-the-more widely…and he has been doing a significant renovation. 

And so what if all of this imperfection and disrepair is not the reason for despair but actually – even as it is hard to see and it means the road is long before us – it can serve as a reminder of just how near Love is come. 

And what if in time when others see FPC coming out of this extended season of wilderness, the narrative is not “Look how broken they are. Look how diminished. But rather, 

“My gosh…. 

  • Look the full their generosity! 
  • How expansive their patience!
  • How open their kindness and generosity across the board!
  • How courageous and continual their pursuit of justice!
  • How profoundly reliant upon God!

To this house, Salvation afresh and Salvation full has come indeed. Amen.” 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert