March 6, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Mathew 5:23-26, Luke 19:1-10
The fourth in a series of seven.
Emily Post was the “Miss Manners” of an earlier generation. She wrote a best seller in 1922 on etiquette. I think my mom read that book because my mom sure tried hard to teach me some manners.
Here is what Emily Post said about greeting people at church. A gentleman is not to extend his hand to a lady, but if he has bad manners and does so, the lady is to “shake any hand that is honorable, even the hand of a coal-heaver, at the risk of her fresh white gloves.” Any coal-heavers here this morning? Any fresh white gloves? Anyone remember “fresh white gloves” in church?
Emily Post said “hello” is not an appropriate greeting at church because it is “too familiar”. In fact, her recommendation was that churchgoers not greet each other at all, except at weddings.
That seems rather stuffy. I think we might want to update the etiquette rules around here. There are some situations today that didn’t exist in 1922. For example cell phones. I think the rule should be that if a cell phone goes off in church, that person gets to buy everyone pizza. And if you’re checking your Facebook page while I am preaching — well, then you can buy the soft drinks to go with the pizza.
I mention this because one day Jesus decided to introduce a whole new etiquette to worship in his day. We read about it in our scripture. It was controversial. It still is. It has to do with which comes first. Which is most important. I understand this was actually something the rabbis in that day debated.
Here’s the situation: You are approaching the altar with a gift you are going to offer to God, and while you are walking up to the altar, you remember some relationship in your life that is broken. Do you offer your gift first and then go tend to that broken relationship? Or do you tend to the broken relationship first and then come back and offer your gift to God?
The rabbis said that when you have two duties, the only time it is ever right to interrupt one to go do the other is when the other is the higher and more important of the two duties. So in this case, of course you would complete your devotion to God before you concern yourself with whatever interpersonal matter you might have on your mind, because God is more important than any human being.
That was pretty well established etiquette for the day, and then along came Jesus. He disagreed with the rabbis. He said they had it wrong. You should interrupt your worship and go take care of that broken relationship. Then you can come back and worship God. Why? Because people come first. God is OK with waiting for you until you have taken care of your personal business. Treating people right is that important.
In other words, if I come to worship and sing the songs and smile at the people and pray and give my offering and receive communion, but all the while I have a relationship in my life that is not good and I’ve done nothing to make it better — I’m just blowing that person off; I’m just not going to think about it — this is not going to make God very happy. Jesus is telling us that this dishonors God.
I can imagine that while Jesus was talking, someone got up and walked out. Not because they were mad at Jesus, but because they were taking what he said to heart. They had just thought of someone they needed to go talk to. Jesus was giving them permission to go. Not just permission. Jesus was really saying, “Go! Get out of here! Don’t come back until you’ve done everything in your power to be reconciled with your brother or your sister!”
And in that same spirit, I hope you will feel the freedom this morning to get up and walk out right in the middle of this sermon. I’m serious. Jesus was serious. Relationships matter more than worship.
Over the years Christians have taken this clear and challenging teaching and developed some worship etiquette that allows us to say we’re taking it seriously without taking it more seriously than would be comfortable. So when we come to communion at the close of worship today, we will have a moment to “pass the peace”. This is a very old tradition. We should be at peace with our brothers and sisters before we come to the communion table. It’s a good ritual. I’m all for it. But I think we know that what Jesus was really talking about goes a little deeper than this.
In fact, what Jesus was really talking about made its way into the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We’re in the middle of a series called “Unstuck.” We’ve seen that these 12 steps were inspired by Jesus. We admit our powerlessness over whatever has us stuck. We surrender our lives and our will to the care of God as we understand him. Then that searching and fearless moral inventory. Followed by confessing the exact nature of our wrongs to God, to ourselves, and to one other person. Today we’re at Steps 8 and 9. We’re combining them into one that goes like this: We made a list of all the persons we had harmed and we made amends to them wherever possible.
This comes from this teaching of Jesus on leaving your gift at the altar, but it is also beautifully illustrated by a story you may remember. The story of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. I don’t think tax collectors have ever been particularly popular. But in that day, tax collectors were hated and despised. And for good reason. The Roman government expected from their tax collectors a certain amount of money based on the population of the region where they worked. So whatever they could collect above the amount Rome expected was theirs to pocket. It was a system that encouraged corruption and the tax collectors were happy to oblige.
In fact, I learned something as I was working on this. One village actually built a statue to an honest tax collector. It was that rare!
But it wasn’t just the dishonesty of the tax collectors that had the general population so angry. They were mainly angry at Rome. Their taxes were not going to support their own country. Their taxes were going to support the Roman government. It would be kind of like if the taxes we pay in the United States were going to support China. Well, I guess they kind of are, aren’t they? We still owe them quite a bit of money . . .
Some rabbis taught that it was OK to lie to a tax collector. God didn’t mind. In case you’re wondering, that one is not in the Bible. So I wouldn’t try it if I were you.
Zacchaeus was one of those hated, despised tax collectors. He had become wealthy by taking advantage of others. No one liked him. I don’t think he even liked himself. He was stuck. His life was unmanageable. He needed Jesus. And then he heard that Jesus was coming to his hometown. Jesus was coming to Jericho. He just had to see Jesus.
One problem for Zacchaeus is that he was vertically challenged. There would be a crowd, and he would never see Jesus over the crowd. Another problem is that in a crowd, he could very well get roughed up. He was that unpopular. So the answer to both problems seemed to be climbing a tree. A sycamore tree. Up in the tree Zacchaeus could see Jesus without being seen. Or so he thought.
His plan didn’t work so well because Jesus saw him up in that tree. And Jesus called him by name. That meant everyone else in the crowd saw him, too. He had been outed. I can imagine the crowd expecting Jesus to condemn Zacchaeus. This should be good. Maybe something like this: “Zacchaeus, you have betrayed your God. You have betrayed your own people. You are an embarrassing, disgusting excuse for a human being.”
The crowd would have applauded a speech like that. But Jesus didn’t make a speech like that. Instead, here’s what he said: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Then it says Zacchaeus came down and Jesus welcomed him gladly.
You might remember the song about Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see . . . ” Nobody in the crowd is singing a song about wee little Zacchaeus. What they are saying is, “Are you kidding me??” “All the people began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’.” Really??
So Jesus goes with Zacchaeus to his house. The best part of the story is what happens next. Zacchaeus the notorious sinner, who everyone hates, who hates himself, whose life is hopelessly stuck, gets unstuck. He stands up and gives a little speech. And it sure sounds like Steps 8 & 9: “Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Zacchaeus has essentially “made a list of all the persons he has harmed and made amends to them wherever possible.” He has interrupted this precious time he has to be alone with Jesus by first going to be reconciled with the brothers and sisters he has wronged. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
This is very hard for us to do. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Zacchaeus. I don’t think anyone here is looking forward to going home and making a list of all the people you have ever harmed and then figuring out how you are going to make it right with them. Very awkward. Very uncomfortable. We’d rather skip this one.
But what would it have looked like if Zacchaeus had skipped it? Zacchaeus might have said, “I used to be a sinner, but not any more. Jesus has forgiven me. I am sorry about all that money I took. My bad. Not much I can do about it now. That’s water under the bridge. Besides, I’ve already spent it. I’m glad God’s grace means I can leave the past behind and just worry about being a good Christian from now on.”
Isn’t that the way we often talk? You’ve heard me talk that way. It’s easy to forget that grace is not just a magic eraser that lets us start over. Grace means we’re forgiven. Grace doesn’t mean we’re no longer responsible for the damage we’ve caused. Grace is not just pardon, it’s also power. Power to do the right thing. Power to make amends wherever possible to those we have wronged.
Last August a television reporter and her cameraman who were murdered during a live news broadcast. It happened in Roanoke, Virginia. The anchor at their station who spoke so eloquently and bravely about what had happened was a woman named Kim McBroom. And I immediately thought of Marty.
Marty McBroom and I started WillametteUniversity as freshmen living in Lausanne Hall. 1973. We were so mean to Marty. I say “we”. That’s an easier word for me to say than “I”. I was so mean to Marty. Marty was extremely intelligent. He was also an easy mark to pick on. He had requested a single dorm room. He didn’t want a roommate. He was very careful to lock his door every time he left his room. He was very particular about the way his room was arranged. Everything had to be just so. He would have had a hard time with a roommate. I don’t think that would have worked at all.
One evening when Marty was away, several of us decided it would be great fun to rearrange the furniture in Marty’s room. His door was always locked, so that posed a problem. But we figured out how to get in through an outside window. We didn’t take anything. We didn’t damage anything. We left everything just as neat as Marty would have left it. Except everything in his room was in a different place.
When he came home later that evening, he was not happy with us. That’s an understatement. He called the campus police. There, now I’ve made my confession of the exact nature of my wrongs to God, myself, and at least one other person.
When I heard the name Kim McBroom, that news anchor in Roanoke, Virginia, I thought of Marty. It’s not a common last name. The last I’d heard of Marty, he was living in Washington, DC. I thought maybe Kim could be his wife. So I tracked Marty down. After all these years, we had a chance to reconnect. Turned out Kim is no relation to Marty. Marty has never married, so I guess he still gets to arrange his room any way he wants to. And Roanoke, I have since learned, isn’t exactly across the river from the District of Columbia.
I apologized to Marty for being such a jerk back in our college days. He accepted my apology. I got the feeling it has bothered me all these years more than it has bothered him. But I’m sure there are many, many other instances in my life where the harm I caused is bothering that person a lot more than it is bothering me. The hurt we cause, as a general rule, hurts the one we hurt more than it hurts us.
Like the five-year-old with his baby brother. The mom hears a scream. “What was that?” The five-year-old says, “The baby pulled my hair! It really hurt! I’m so mad!!” The mom says, “Well, the baby doesn’t know how much it hurts.” A few seconds later there’s another scream. “What was that?” The five-year-old says, “Now the baby knows.”
We go through life hurting people and being hurt by people. We are all guilty. We are all victims. And the hurt can take on a life of its own. It doesn’t fade away. It festers. It feeds on itself. It gets bigger, not smaller. It gets worse, not better.
That’s why Jesus told us this is important. More important than worship. We’re going to “pass the peace” in just a moment as a ritual reminder of how important this is. But we need more than a ritual reminder. We need to make a list of those we have harmed. Then we need to go to each of them and say we are sorry. And finally, we need to make amends to each of them, wherever possible.
We might say they need us to do that for them, and that is true. But it’s truer that we need to do that for ourselves. Until we do, we are stuck. When we do, we are free. When we do, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house”.
Dear God, we all have memories, some buried, some closer to the surface, of times when we behaved badly with other people. We confess this to you and we seek your forgiveness. Help us this week to take the next step — to confess this to them and to seek their forgiveness. And then to do all that is in our power to make things right. To make amends. To get even. Because getting even is not about hurting people who have hurt us. It is about helping people we have hurt. Only then can the cycle of hurt be broken and we can all be set free. In Jesus’ name, Amen.