“A New Direction” a message by Dr. Bruce Havens Coral Isles Church, UCC October 23, 2022 Luke 19:1-10 1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Every day we make choices about the direction of our lives. And there are all kinds of choices. Little meaningless ones, big difficult ones, ones that have no good option, ones that there is no wrong choice. Life is full of choices. Some choices just matter more than others?
The most important choices, of course, are the ones about the direction of our lives when our very lives are at stake. Comedian Craig Ferguson talks about the decision he had made about being sober. He had been struggling with his alcoholism for years and he woke up one Christmas morning in a bed above a pub in Ireland. He had gone there for one drink on Christmas Eve and woke up in a bed above the pub and – excuse me for saying it, but - covered in his own urine. I know, I winced at that too. He decided things had to change so he was going to kill himself. Jump off a bridge into the river and drown.
As he went downstairs to do so, the pub keeper talked him into a having a glass of sherry first! I know, right? Long story short Craig ended up in rehab and got sober and has stayed sober – as far as I know - I’m no Craig Ferguson expert! – but he shared something his roommate in rehab told him that echoed powerfully through my mind. He said said to him, “You know Craig, you don’t have a drinking problem, you have a thinking problem.” That’s powerful, huh? Powerful enough that it helped Craig change the direction of his life.
Now, I don’t want to get into group therapy here about addiction, because I am no expert. But that is some powerful truth. I think it can apply to a lot of things in life besides addiction. I often think “this” is my problem – whatever “this” is – but more often than not the real problem is my thinking about the problem!
I may think my problem is I need to diet to lose weight. The real problem may be the way I am thinking about food. I may think I want to be a real guitarist, but the real problem is I am not willing to commit the time to practice enough to be one. I think it is a lot like the saying about time. It isn’t that I don’t have the time to do something. It is I think it is not important enough to use the time to do that. I may think my problem is too little money. But it may be more the way I think about and use money that is the real problem. It’s like saying “drinking” isn’t my problem. The thinking is my problem.
Zaccheus had a problem. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and a rich man. That doesn’t sound like a problem. I would imagine many people envied his “lifestyle.” Many more probably resented it. When it comes down to it Zaccheus had gained his wealth using the system just like it was designed. But the separation and the hatred he must have felt left him isolated and apart from his community.
He wanted to see Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowds who had gathered to watch him parade into town. Zaccheus climbs the sycamore tree. Jesus spies him up there, calls him down and invites himself to lunch. The people are, uh, upset. He’s a sinner! There he goes again. Rich Zaccheus gets the privileges and Rabbi Jesus chooses sinners over us good righteous religious folks. AGAIN!
Apparently, they didn’t even get to lunch and BAM! Zaccheus announces his new way of thinking: “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!” What? Wow! What changed Zaccheus direction in life?
I think Zaccheus discovered that the way to change his direction was to do what was turn away from the injustice of cheating people of their money and to practice generosity as proof of his changed life. He had chosen a career direction that gave him great monetary satisfaction. But it had isolated and separated him socially. He was hated for collaborating with the Roman Government that ruled over Israel and oppressed them with their soldiers and their taxes and their ignorance of Jewish religious values. He was hated for cheating his neighbors and fellow citizens for his own profit. He was unwelcome socially and his wealth isolated him. We can assume he was unaware that generosity could bring the joy and happiness to his life that his riches couldn’t. Somehow he evidently heard of this Jesus of Nazareth and evidently what he heard challenged him to change his whole life direction.
Have you ever made a direction change in your thinking that changed your life? Maybe you always thought you had to believe this or that about Jesus. Maybe you always thought you had to be straight to be a Christian. Maybe you thought being abused was your fault. Maybe you thought you would always be poor, or rich, or married, or a hundred other ways life happens and we have to make choices. Which direction will we go? I am beginning to believe that making the decision about how I think about the choice, how I think about myself, how I think about my circumstances may be the best way to begin.
Ah, of course, money, wealth is a powerful motivator. Zaccheus could pretend to ignore that he was a social pariah because of his choice of professions by covering himself in his riches. He could pretend he didn’t care that he was hated, scorned, and lonely with his riches. But apparently the time came when Zaccheus recognized his thinking wasn’t working anymore. Sure, he had a position of power, the authority to take as much as he wanted. Sure, he was simply working the economic system, benefitting from “the way things are.” But at some point something must have changed the way he was thinking about what mattered.
Now, I keep saying “thinking,” but the truth is thinking is not separate from “feeling.” One feels lonely. One feels it when others hate them. One doesn’t change the direction of in life simply by logical, fact-based information. But if we want to change directions in our lives we have to recognize the feelings that often keep us thinking a certain way. What we often long for is a feeling that is different from the way we currently feel about our lives and ourselves.
Earlier in my life I had always felt I never had enough so I had to be very careful about giving anything to anyone else. But something in me began to want to feel generous. But my thinking was always telling me I never had enough to give, to be generous to others. That thinking and feeling comes from a fear that there is never enough. But my faith taught me that God valued generosity, God knew the powerful blessing of giving, of being part of blessing others, not just accumulating more toys, more stuff. For me the words and example of Jesus continually challenging people to realize that the greatest joy in life was in giving helped me want to move in that direction. In encounter after encounter Jesus models, challenges, lifts up the value of a generosity of spirit. More than just money it also involves a generosity to forgive, to go beyond the boundaries to welcome, to help others in need. I wanted to change directions in that part of my life.
Now I don’t want to turn this into a stewardship sermon or a covert money-begging message. But I made choices to begin to feel more generous. I began with my giving back to God for all that I had been blessed with. I never learned about tithing even though I grew up in church, but when I learned about that that started the process of showing me a way to become generous. Tammy and I started giving 10 percent of our income for God through the church. That represented a sacrifice at first. But it became a powerful way to experience generosity that it made me want to find other ways to be generous. I have never regretted that change in my life. It freed me from being more materialistic and it enabled me to put God first in that part of my life. I don’t want to pat myself on the back in sharing this. I simply want to point to what I changed in my life so that I could experience something much more satisfying than simply feeling like I had everything I needed.
Zaccheus knew something was missing in his life. He wanted to change that. Somehow he recognized that generosity and doing what was just and right towards others was the new direction he needed to take to find what he longed for most in life. Changing directions can seem impossible in some cases. Christ reassures us that while some things seem impossible to us, with God all things become possible. Maybe you are completely satisfied with the level of generosity in your life. That’s a great thing. That puts you ahead of a lot of people. What I learned in listening to the passage again wasn’t just a lesson on giving. It was a lesson on changing.
Whether we feel completely satisfied with our lives or completely dissatisfied, whether we have one area we want to find a new direction or several, the story of Zaccheus assures us we can take a new direction if we want to. We may need to examine our thinking and feeling about that part of our lives. But for me the key is to look to our faith, the values that we see Christ shows us in Scripture. Perhaps there is a metaphor for us in this passage. Christ seeks out the one who wants to change, to be better. Christ comes to him and in that encounter everything can change.
I think the key there is the love Zaccheus experienced in his encounter with Jesus. A man who had known little other than hatred and exclusion discovered in Jesus the perfect love of God for him. I believe that love powered the decision to proclaim a new direction in Zaccheus’ life. Jesus put it this way: “Today salvation has come to this man.” Saved by love, changed by love, Zaccheus announced that he had thousands of reasons to give thanks to God.
I pray that the love of God has, or will touch you so deeply you can make any change you need or want to, and you too will find ten thousand reasons to praise God for that love. AMEN.