If Necessary, Look Up a Tree – October 30

A sermon based on Luke 19:1-10

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 30. 2022 *

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Some of you may have heard me tell this riddle before. Do you know why the last meal Jesus had with his disciples consisted of just bread and wine? Because it was a pot luck and only men were invited.  Now that’s not Biblically true, so don’t go looking in your New Testament for proof, and for goodness’ sake don’t go telling your family and friends the pastor said it was so.

With all that disclaimer-ing out of the way, I do want to point out some metaphoric Truth’s in that joke.  It is true that when only men are invited to Christ’s table, the meal, the table and the whole community is incomplete. But it is not true that Jesus only had male disciples and leaders in the early church. To leave women out of the Jesus movement and out of the leadership and out of the Last Supper is sinful. And frankly that applies not just to women, but to anyone else we might think was not allowed, or is not allowed at Jesus’ table.

Here in this place Mount Vernon First Congregational Church  – God’s church– anyone –anyone is welcome and invited to this space and to the communion table, which is the Lord’s Supper not ours!  Today’s story is about that extravagant welcome, which started with Jesus’ way back when.  But the story is also about the aggressive campaign of invitation that Jesus started. He was not just about welcoming but inviting.  Once again in a Lectionary Lesson from Luke Jesus goes out of his way to find and invite a social outcast to be with him. Jesus does not wait for followers to show up  by word of mouth, by bumper stickers or Facebook ads or cute Tik-tok videos. He travels the countryside, goes out and gets them. They are not necessarily people he knew before or ones that he met in social clubs or at synagogue.

Jesus aggressively invites people into his community, most especially strangers rejected by others. And I know this can be hard to hear but like Jesus we – his followers– are to aggressively invite people too, not just welcome them, but invite them. We are called to do as Jesus did. I’ve mentioned before how studies show that over 80% of the people who come to church come because they are invited by the people in the pews. Welcoming folks from the pews is necessary and good, but, churches grow when members and friends of the church invite people to the church. We can try and make up excuses, to avoid asking people,  but churches wanting to grow need it to be done. See the truth is – no matter what we might wish– the staff of churches and missions and ministries and nice buildings and great worship services are not the catalyst for growth at churches, the church members are. All the other things we do matter for sure, but getting church to grow starts with each member. The job cannot be hired out or delegated or wished or prayed away.

When there is talk about growing the church, we have to ask ourselves how many people are invited by those of us in this church family. That’s key to growth issues.  Each person in the church family should ask themself if they invited anyone to church this year? Did they invite one a year? Or one a month? My professional advice is to invite no less than one a month. Just once a month ask someone to church. Acting like Jesus, we need to go out and about, look up and down – even in trees if need be – and ask people to please come to this community. We need to be willing to invite and let in every type of person, and to make the place welcoming and safe for all who are invited, and aggressively advertise that point. Tax collectors, and all manner of other folks need to be invited and be welcome when they arrive.

Obviously everyone – those who invite and those who are  invited– need to behave safely and respectfully in the church. Because church done Jesus’ Way invites in and welcomes and makes a safe and respectful place for the gathered, most especially those others discard or shun or bully or belittle.  This is particularly true today when people think churches as a rule are exclusive, so we have to fight the tide, and not hide the truth that we are inclusive, welcoming and inviting everyone. We are marvelously, wondrously inclusive, and welcoming– but we gotta invite folks, all kinds of folks. Today’s reading is about Jesus doing that. He is marvelously, wondrously inclusive, welcoming . .. AND inviting.

In Jesus’ day the last person most peasants in Palestine wanted to invite and welcome anywhere, let alone break bread with,  was a tax collector. Zacchaeus is the worst of the worst,  he’s  the chief tax collector in Jericho a huge taxation center. Tax collectors are not well liked in any part of history, they are a necessity, but they are not liked. Well, in Palestine tax collectors were hated. First of all, they did not collect taxes for an elected government, they collected for the occupying enemy Roman Empire, and they did so ruthlessly.  Moreover, Zacchaeus was not a Roman collecting for Rome,  he was a local fellow betraying his country for the occupying force and making lots of money at it– as chief tax collector he got a cut of all the money his tax collectors collected, that’s why he is rich.  And to add another layer of muck, all tax collectors made their money for Rome by charging a profit over what was owed Rome.

No wonder tax collectors were considered loathsome! Chief tax collectors were uniformly hated. Yet Jesus seeks such a hated fellow out– seeks him out, up a tree, out on a limb. So, if we picture someone we might not want to ask to church, that’s who Jesus sought out and invited much to the dismay of everyone. We are told: “All who saw it began to grumble.” But  Jesus did not care about the boundaries to love that others set. He brazenly broke them down and let the grumblers grumble.

The result was that Zacchaeus, the loathsome, hated tax collector was happy to be sought and found and invited and welcomed to break bread with Jesus to even bring Jesus’ community into this own home. The consequence was a man transformed. After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus spread his resources around and more than made amends for any past misdeeds. Unconditional love made all the difference.  Salvation came to Zacchaeus because Jesus invited him into his community. Jesus did not wait for him to show up but sought him out and Zacchaeus was saved from his lesser way of being.

We hear time and time again how Jesus goes to the edge of the culture and swoops in the lost. He doesn’t just welcome the lost when they show up, he seeks them out. Those lost by life’s misfortunes. Those lost by their own misdeeds. Those lost by prejudices. Those lost by economic circumstances. Those lost by being outcast by the culture. Those lost by religious institutions and people scaring them away.  Jesus doesn’t just welcome all those who are lost when they show up, he goes out and actively affirmatively and aggressively gets them.

Here’s my summary of Jesus’ Way – which I’ve said before. When we consider the Bible through the lensof love, what’s magnified above all else are four paramount premises: God is love; Believe in love; Love, love; and Be love. All four premises are wonderful, but as I’ve said before Jesus’ teachings suggest that only one of them is needed to inherit the Empire of God, that is the last one I mentioned, to be love. We can believe all we like, but it’s being love that matters. So, Jesus is always teaching and demonstrating how to go and be loved– and a critical part of it was inviting people to his community.

When Jesus taught love he encouraged having an open mind, passionate beliefs and boldness in service to others– and he does all of that in today’s lesson. He doesn’t let everyone else’s opinion of Zacchaeus stop him from inviting him in. Jesus  thinks openly, seeks an outcast regardless of grumbles and brings him into the community.  Jesus believes so passionately in love that he is willing to seek out a stranger and invite him to his welcoming community. And all of that Jesus does to serve God boldly.  The “God is love, believe in love, love, love and be love” stuff requires us to invite people into this place filled with open minded Christians, passionate in belief and bold in how we serve love–God.

Although I think we struggle with the inviting folks to church part, we do the rest very well. Throughout ministry together we have strived to be open minded, passionate in beliefs while boldly serving God– love. And with Christ by our side and God (love) at the helm we have accomplished so much. This Tuesday, November 1 is the ninth anniversary of the start of our ministry together.  For nine years I’ve observed this as A doing church. But long before I got here Mount Vernon First Congregational Church was a doing church that does a lot. It’s a church with a vast array of missions and ministries that serve love inside and outside the church. It is a very generous church, a very love-filled church. This is a very Christ-centered place! And. It. Matters.

And we need to make it matter to more people by asking folks to come to church. Just ask, and let God take care of the rest. See, church done Jesus’ Way invites in and welcomes and makes a safe place for everyone. This is especially a need for those that others discard or shun or bully or belittle.   People grumbled about Jesus’ open, passionate and bold outreach to those on the margins. He let them grumble and got on with his work (God’s work–which is love). Of course, he did not just invite people in, he protected the marginalized  from the grumblers. Some people will grumble about unconditional love.

We’ve had them come inside the church and march outside and grumble about it. Even those grumblers can come in and be invited, and stay as long as they do not make the place unsafe by falsely stating others are unloved by God.

Jesus made it a safe community for Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus came in he made the community safer abandoning his misdeeds and helping those he may have hurt. He began to be love right away. Our job in this church is to magnify that God is love; our beliefs in love; our love for love; and most especially being love. Jesus made it clear that a part of that is to invite people into the community,  and if necessary, to even look up trees for those out on a limb needing love.   AMEN!


* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2013