The Practice of Being Present to God – November 6, 2016

   rocks on the coast of the Sea in the natureSAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES

    PRAYER:  The Practice of Being Present to God                       click here for audio

I Peter 4:8-11, Luke 19:1-10
Pastor Marty Raths

Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
PRAYER:  The Practice of Being Present to God

Luke does not tell us much about the man Zacchaeus, except that he was a tax collector and that he was rich. Maybe there was not much else to say about him. Maybe that sort of said it all. There are people like that, people whose basic orientation in life is one of accumulation. Getting, having, keeping. It all sort of stops with them. The circle of grace gets broken.

There is another basic orientation in life, not one of accumulation, but one of gratitude, in which giving completes the circle. John Wesley gave this wise counsel, “Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” All three of these should be a part of our approach to money as disciples of Jesus Christ, all three of these bring us full circle, completing the circle of grace, with the blessings of God coming to us and then going from us, back in loving service to God and neighbor.

To only earn and save, or worse yet, to only earn and spend, is a very selfish way to live. And it diminishes us. “The world of the generous gets larger and larger,” says the Book of Proverbs, “the world of the selfish gets smaller and smaller.”  In this same spirit a wise person of faith once wrote, “We grow by subtraction, not by addition.” Ponder this for a moment, as it is counter intuitive and counter cultural. We grow by subtraction, not by addition. In a consumer culture like ours, where having is the end all of life, this makes little sense because it suggests that we are enriched most not through having but through giving, the giving of ourselves, our time, our passion, our gifts, our appreciation, our encouragement, our money.  Such gifts become the possession of a lifetime. They can never be taken away.  When we live lives of gratitude and generosity, our lives are not diminished but enriched. We grow by subtraction. The more we give, the richer our lives become. The world of the generous gets larger and larger, the world of the selfish gets smaller and smaller.

And from his behavior it is apparent that Zacchaeus’ world had gotten very small. It had gotten down to him and his money, and even he was feeling some dissatisfaction with that. Despite all his wealth, something was missing. 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 restlessness evident in Zacchaeus up in that tree, a restlessness which Jesus no doubt saw.

Here was a man looking for something more, something that all his wealth could not satisfy.  Here was a man who might be open to hearing the good news of the kingdom if it were offered to him.  “Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “I am going to stay with you.”

I have long since come to believe that God works the cracks in us. There is little that God can do with us if we are full of ourselves, and if we have deceived ourselves into believing that we are somehow sufficient unto ourselves. But life has a way of causing cracks in us, with feelings of dissatisfaction, of restlessness, of emptiness, with a sense that we have somehow lost our way, or that there must be something more to life. And when cracks appear in our self-sufficiency, as they almost always do, that is where grace begins to do its saving work in us.

And there were cracks appearing in Zacchaeus’ life. The door of his life, which had been closed for so long, was now ajar. And Jesus asked if he might enter, and Zacchaeus let him.  He let Jesus into his home, and then into his life . . .

In her book An Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor encourages us to broaden our understanding of prayer. It is not so much about our being deferential towards God as it is about our being honest with God. And it is not so much about our trying to get God’s attention as it is about our trying to pay more attention to God. Prayer is certainly talking to God, but it is also listening to God. The ancient rabbis used to say that God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak in our prayers.

But even more than this, prayer is the practice of making ourselves available to God. Prayer is risking the crowd, and climbing up the tree, in the hopes that we might have a meeting with Jesus.  Prayer is letting Jesus into our lives, letting him sit down at table with us, and letting him have a heart to heart with us about the direction of our lives.

Luke does not tell us about Zacchaeus’ heart to heart with Jesus.  Not a word.  All he tells us is that afterwards Zacchaeus was a changed man. That is what prayer helps to make possible. It helps to set up the meeting place with Jesus, and that can be most anyplace, and then who knows what might happen. Just look at Zacchaeus.  No one else could believe it, and my guess is that even Zacchaeus’ could not believe it at first. How had it happened? How had it come about?  His change of heart?

A meeting had taken place between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and an exchange had happened, and a poet has offered this imaginative exchange, one that I find to be quite compelling.

As Jesus sat at table with Zacchaeus, he said to him, “Zacchaeus, what did you see that made you have this change of heart?”

And Zacchaeus sat in silence for a long time, deep in thought, and then he looked at Jesus and said, “Lord, I saw, mirrored in your eyes, the face of the Zacchaeus I was meant to be.”

Someone has said that there are 2 places of fruitful discipleship: where we are in life, and where God wants us to be. Zacchaeus knew where he was. He had spent a long time there. Much of his life he had spent accumulating wealth. But in a moment, in the eyes of Jesus, he saw where God wanted him to be. He saw himself not as a man intent upon having, with no larger purpose in life than accumulation.  Instead he saw himself as a man who had much to give. “Half of all that I have, Lord, I will give to the poor,” Zacchaeus said to Jesus.

But as significant as it was that Zacchaeus was turning his life around, changing his whole orientation in life, going from a life of having to a life of giving, the most significant thing was that, for the first time, Zacchaeus called Jesus, “Lord.”  In doing that Zacchaeus was making a commitment to Jesus, and all the rest followed, all the other changes that were starting to happen in his life.

Someone once said, “Stewardship is what we do after we say, “I believe.“  In calling Jesus “Lord” Zacchaeus was saying “I believe.” He was stepping into the waters of faith, so to speak, and when he did that, they began to ripple through his life, changing everything.

Stewardship is what we do after we say, “I believe.” Our stewardship theme this year is Living More Deeply, Loving More Widely.  Zacchaeus’ meeting with Jesus took him deeper, to a place where he had to reassess his life, what he valued, where he was headed, how he was going to live.  It took him to a very deep place, to that place in life where we are moved to say to Jesus, “Lord.”

And saying that changes everything. It means that from now on Jesus gets a say in our lives, a say in our commitments and choices and actions. Our lives are not ours to do with as we please. Now we have to keep in mind what is pleasing to God as well. Stewardship is indeed what we do with our lives after we say, “Lord.”

As I said, Luke does not tell us about what happened at Zacchaeus’ home that day. He leaves it to our imagination, and by doing that he invites us to imagine not only what might have happened between Jesus and Zacchaeus but what might happen between Jesus and us if he were to sit down with us for a heart to heart.

What would Jesus say to us about the direction of our lives?  What would we say to him if we were as honest with ourselves as Zacchaeus?  In Jesus Zacchaeus saw the Zacchaeus he was meant to be. What would that look like for us? Who are we meant to be?  And what do we need to do still to become that person?

Obviously the conversation came around to money. It usually does. In his ministry Jesus talked more about money than any other matter except the Kingdom of God because money is one of those stewardship matters, one of those things that changes after we say to Jesus, “Lord.”

This past week we received a letter from Ray Marshall, our finance chair, asking us to prayerfully consider our giving to the church this coming year, and as Taylor suggests I would encourage us in our prayers to set up one of those table meetings. Let Jesus in on the conversation as you think about how much you have been blessed by God, about what it means to you to be a part of this congregation, about how much the life and ministry of our church is dependent upon all of us, and about what a faithful gift would be for you.

In the next week we will all be receiving another letter from Donna and I, echoing Ray’s invitation for us to make a faithful financial commitment to our church in the 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 on Sunday, November 20th./

Now a faithful gift will be different for each one of us, but faithful giving will mean for all of us that we make our gift a real priority, a first thought not a last thought or an afterthought.  And it will mean that we make our gift in proportion to what God has given to us,

In this sense stewardship is simple, though maybe not always easy. A pastor was once talking with a church member who happened to be a farmer, and they got to talking about giving and tithing. “If you had $100,000 dollars,” the pastor asked, “would you give $10,000 to God?”  “I sure would,” the farmer answered.  “And if you had 1000 bushels of wheat,” “would you give 100 bushels to God?”  “Of course.”  “And if you had 100 hogs, would you give 10 to God?”  “Now wait a minute,” the farmer said. “That’s not fair. You know that I have 100 hogs.”

But that is not only fair it is faithful, giving in proportion to what God has given to us. As Peter wrote in his letter, “Be generous with the different things that God has given you . . . “ And this is what our Finance Committee is asking from all of us, that we make a commitment to being generous in our giving to the church this coming year, and that we make our commitment from that deep place in life where we have said to Jesus, “Lord.”  And where like Zacchaeus we have asked him, “Now what would you have me do?”

In his table meeting with Jesus Zacchaeus’s life was reoriented.  Before that meeting, life was all about Zacchaeus. Whatever he could have, he took. Even at the expense of others. But afterwards, that all changed.  Afterwards, whatever he could, Zacchaeus gave.  A commitment to Jesus does that.

Zacchaeus’ basic orientation towards life changed that day. Instead of being a keeper he became a giver as he chose to live more deeply as a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. And those waters of faith that began rippling through his life, they would begin rippling out too, changing his relationships with others as well, moving him to not only live more deeply but to love more widely, and about that there will be more next week. So stay tuned. Amen.




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