THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Generosity” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
A wise person once said, “There are two places that matter in the life of faith. Where we are, and where Jesus wants us to be.” But then there is also the matter of getting from the one place to the other, and as we just sang, that is a matter of putting one foot forward and then the other foot, step by step by step on the way to a deeper faith and a more fruitful one.
And God has all sorts of ways to get us moving on the way, and we see a couple of these at work in the story of Zacchaeus. One of the ways that God works in us is through our feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent, and surely there was some of that going on in Zacchaeus. Despite being rich, something was missing in his life. Why else go out to see Jesus? Why else climb up that tree? That was a rather undignified thing for him to do as a man of his position in the community. So there is a spiritual emptiness evident in Zacchaeus up in that tree.
But in a more positive way, God can also get us moving through a growing sense of gratitude, and this too we see in Zacchaeus as the story unfolds. And it may well have begun with the presence of that sycamore tree, and I have Konnie Helwig to thank for this insight. Now I have read this story countless times, and I have preached on it several times through the years, but I had never thought about that tree in this way. Then at a recent education committee meeting Konnie shared this thought as a part of our devotions. “Long before Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus, the tree was already planted to meet his need.” Zacchaeus had nothing to do with that tree being there, and yet, when he needed it to see Jesus, it was there.
I see that sycamore tree as a metaphor for all that is gift and grace in life, and let us be honest, if we really think about it, what in life is not gift and grace. I mean we cannot even begin to image all the ways in which we are beneficiaries of the goodness, the generosity, the thoughtfulness, the foresight, and the sacrifice of so many others, not to mention of God, who with the gift of each day grants us grace upon grace upon grace. And this is true for us as individuals, families, churches, communities, nations, and whole wide world.
This sense of gratitude about life is gospel bedrock when it comes to living a life of faithful stewardship, which is our focus during this Thanksgiving Season: how we can live a life of stewardship with God at the center. And this sense of gratitude begins with our seeing, or as with Zacchaeus our being made to see, the graciousness of life. The theologian Karl Barth captured this deep connection between grace and gratitude when he wrote, “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Gratitude evokes grace like the voice an echo, and gratitude follows grace like thunder follows lighting.”
Grace begets gratitude, and, I would add, gratitude begets generosity, but more about that later. First, let us get back to Zacchaeus up in that tree. Was it while he was up there that he began to sense those first feelings of gratitude? I mean gratitude was not much a part of his life before that. His life up to that point was all about Zacchaeus. But for some reason he desperately needed to see Jesus, and there was no way that he could have done that without the help of that tree, whether it was planted by others – thank them – or by the wonderous workings of nature – thank God.
And if we look back at our own lives, how many such instances would we find, when other people, when circumstances beyond us, when the grace of God, made something possible for us? The list would be long for all of us, and some of these instances may well have made all the difference for us.
Imagine if that tree had not been there for Zacchaeus. He would have been lost in the crowd, and then there would have been no encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and without that encounter what would have become of Zacchaeus? Would his life have continued on the same old path to the end of his days, a path that had him becoming ever richer in things but poorer in spirit.
This tree made possible for Zacchaeus an encounter with Jesus, and I want to contrast encounter here with experience. Now there is nothing wrong with our having experiences. They are a rich part of our lives. But experiences keep us at the center. They are about what it was like for us, the sights we saw, the feelings we had, the memories we made. But encounters do something more. They move us out from the center, and in so doing they change us.
And by the end of the story there is no doubt that Zacchaeus has had an encounter with Jesus. And we know this because he was left a changed man. His life was no longer just about him. It was about others too, and most importantly it was about his relationship with Jesus. Did you note what Zacchaeus called Jesus at the end of the story. “Lord,” he said. Now that changes everything.
Someone once said, “Stewardship is what we do with our lives after we say, “I believe.” In calling Jesus “Lord,” Zacchaeus was saying “I believe.” And in saying that he was also asking, “What now, Jesus? What should I do?” because now Jesus has put God at the center of his life, so God now has a claim upon him, and a say in what he should do. And as I said, that changes everything. “Lord, half my possessions I will give to the poor,” Zaccaheus told Jesus, “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Grace begets gratitude, and gratitude begets generosity, even in a man who had been as greedy as Zacchaeus.
Step by step by step Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus has moved God into the center of his life, and with God there, everything looks different, who we are, who others are, who God is, what God asks of us, and what we should do with all that God has entrusted into our care. Those first questions are the attitude questions that Donna talked about last week, and those last questions are the stewardship questions. What should we do with this life that has been so graciously given to us? What should we do? But this is often a step that people of faith are a little hesitant to take. Our intentions are good, but . . .
There was once a man who found himself despairing about the state of the world. He was overwhelmed by all the suffering, and hatred, and violence that he saw. Then one night, during a restless sleep, he had a dream. He was in a strange village, with people and streets and shops that he did not recognize. And as he wandered around the village, he felt himself drawn to one particular shop, so he went into it. He did not recognize the shopkeeper either, though he seemed familiar to him somehow. “What kind of shop is this?” he asked.
“I sell most everything,” the shopkeeper answered.
“What do you mean?” the man asked.
“Just look around,” the shopkeeper said. “See what it is that you want, make a list, and then come back here, and I will see what I can do for you.”
So the man began to wander around the shop, up and down the aisles, and on the shelves he saw signs that read love of neighbor, no more hunger, an end to war, and he began to make his list. There were many other signs too that had to do with health, literacy, work, freedom, justice, . . . Finally, the man came back to the shopkeeper, and by now his list was very, very long, sort of like a child’s Christmas wish list, and as he handed it to the shopkeeper, he saw for the first time marks on the shopkeeper’s hands.
Taking the list, the shopkeeper went into a backroom, and he was there for quite some time, and the man could hear him taking things off the shelves and moving things around and gathering things up. When he finally came back out, he had in his hands all these little packets, and one by one he laid them out on the counter.
“What are these?” the man asked.
“These are the seeds of all that you asked for on your list,” the shopkeeper said.
Puzzled, the man said, “The seeds?”
“Yes, the seeds,” the shopkeeper said. “You did not think that you could have all these things without having to work for them, did you?”
What should we do? This is the last step of faith, the seed sowing, the fruit bearing, the stewardship with God at the center step. It is the last step in getting from here to there, from where we are, to where Jesus wants us to be. And when this happens, when we go from sowing seed to bearing fruit, church happens. And when we are generous with our sowing, gracious church happens.
Some time ago someone shared with me a thought about generosity, and Donna is going to talk more about generosity next week. But this is the thought. “Generosity unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more . . . It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”
I love that image. It imagines generosity as a sort of key that unlocks life’s fullness. That fullness is there as potential just waiting to be brought to fruition by acts of generosity, whether that potential is a sharing of a meal, the dwelling in a house, or a relationship with a stranger. That potential exists in the church too because generosity of spirit can turn a group of followers into a gracious church, which is where Jesus wants us to be as a congregation. And I have some good news to share about this: there are a lot of good and gracious things going on among us. I hope that you know this. Next steps in faith are being taken here. People are hearing, and taking to heart, the good news that we are all beloved children of God. People are growing in their commitment to discipleship practice, through worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and service. People are coming alongside one another as caring and compassionate companions in Christ in this sometimes joyful and sometimes difficult journey we call life. We are reaching out into our community through our Wednesday dinners, our partnerships with Sunny Hill and Lily Lake, our support of Valley Outreach, Young Life, Hope for the Journey Home . . . I could go on, and I really do hope that you know this. There are a lot of good and gracious things going on among us.
And all this happens because we are committed to living lives of stewardship with God at the center, generously sharing of our time, and our energy, and our gifts, including our financial gifts. And here too there is good news. As Donna shared last week, our giving to the church and its ministries has increased significantly in the last few years, and all I want to say about this is xie xie, merci, thank you and let us keep growing in our giving, and the biblical prescription for this is simple: recognize grace; cultivate gratitude; see the needs of others; give in proportion to what we have received, remembering that to those who of us have been given much, much will be expected; work towards tithing. And when we do this, we make possible, in this season of experimentation that we are in as a church, the sowing of new seeds of ministry that have the chance to take root, and to grow, and to bear fruit in abundance.
The week before last we received a letter from Ray Marshall, our finance chair, reminding us that changings lives through encounters with Christ is the business of the church, just ask Zacchaeus, and that these encounters are happening here among us. And then Ray encouraged us to find it in our hearts to support this ministry of our church by making a financial commitment for the coming year.
With the story of Zacchaeus in mind, I would encourage us in our considerations to have a sit down with Jesus. Let Jesus in on our conversation as we consider how much God has graced our lives, and what it means to us to be a part of this congregation, and how much the life and ministry of our church is dependent upon all of us, and finally what a faithful gift would be for us if God were here right here at the center of our lives.
This coming week we will all be receiving another letter from Donna and I, echoing Ray’s invitation for us to find it in our hearts to make a financial commitment to our church this coming year. Along with that letter there will be a pledge form giving us the opportunity to make a commitment both to our general fund and our capital fund, and we will dedicate our pledges during worship next Sunday, November 19th.
So again thank you all for your generous spirits. And remember, grace begets gratitude, and gratitude begets generosity. May it be so for us as a congregation, and for each one of us who like Zacchaeus have said to Jesus, “Lord,” because saying that changes everything.