Reclaiming Worship

Scripture Luke 19:1-10

Given on November 3, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY


One of the great things about being the father of a 6 year old is the degree of excitement with which he approaches just about everything in life. In fact, for my son, most days are spent in some form of anticipatory excitement over something in the not to distant future. This week it was Halloween. He was so excited about Halloween that he would bound into the living room every morning and ask how many more days until it was here. When it isn’t a future holiday, my son gets excited about weekends. He knows that when the school day is done on Friday, the difficult requirements of the typical first grade work week are over and he can focus on having fun and having us all be together as a family. There are visits from Oma and Opa, the ever present Christmas, friends birthday parties, and on and on and on. It seems like we are always preparing for something in our house and that is almost always fueled by the excitement of our son.

It’s sad that as we grow older we tend to lose some of that childlike exuberance about life. As years pass, birthdays become a symbol of growing older, a marker of what’s left instead of what’s happened already. Holidays, a mixture of nervousness and trepidation, as family members that probably shouldn’t ever speak are seated next to one another with a bottle of wine in between them. Beginning early on in life, with the goal of having well-behaved, well-mannered children, we teach them that it is important to keep emotions in check. To not shout out too loud with joy or laugh too heartily, or dance for no reason. And while I acknowledge the importance of these lessons, heaven knows I try to teach them to my own prone to over excitement son, it seems that something of the magic of life goes away when we begin to think about it too much, when we begin to self-regulate. When the things which we are genuinely excited about begin to dwindle.

And I wonder if that’s not the experience of the protagonist in our story. We are told that Jesus was passing through the town of Jericho and in this particular town there lived a man named Zacchaeus and we are immediately told two things about Zacchaeus. The first is that he is the chief tax collector of the region. Now, a few things you need to know about the tax-collecting business in first century Palestine. The first is that it was extraordinarily crooked. While it was the Romans who extracted taxes from the people, it was the tax collectors who took a percentage cut for themselves and for their troubles. And much like a pyramid scheme, each set of hands that the taxes passed through took an increasing share. So that a “chief tax collector” was able to take a cut out of all the lower tax collectors takes. The second thing you should know is that it was incredibly lucrative to be a tax collector. They were some of the wealthiest folks in town and did not mind showing it. So they would have the nicest house and wear the fanciest clothes and dine on the finest food. Finally, we should know that because they often swindled money from those less fortunate, and made a lot of money doing it, and showed it off whenever they could, tax collectors were also some of the most hated members of Palestinian society. And so you might assume that his life was pretty miserable apart from his financial resources and stuff. And this was probably the situation in which he finds himself when word reaches him that Jesus is passing through his town. Now by this point in the story, Jesus acclaim has grown to be fairly substantial. Crowds would surround him whenever he stopped somewhere. Word of his travels would proceed him into the towns through which he passed and people would gather with excitement to see this great teacher, this great revolutionary. And this story is no different. And you have to imagine that the crowds packed in tightly to see Jesus pass through and then there’s this man, this tax collector, “short in stature” we are told. And no one is letting him see. But, this man, this short man, this tax collector, his excitement piqued by the chance to see Jesus pass through his town will not be deterred. And if the next scene seems a bit absurd or silly, don’t worry, it’s supposed to. I’m convinced that you are supposed to find it odd that a grown man, a man of great prominence if nothing else, is having to behave as children might in order to see over the adults. No, grown person would even think about doing this. And so here is this guy, sitting among the children in the boughs of a sycamore tree when finally Jesus arrives and comes to a stop. And surely the crowd is wondering what he is doing. Surely he cannot be stopping to talk to this silly man, sitting in a tree. This hated man, hanging out with the kids because he is too short and too hated to hang out with the adults. Surely, Jesus isn’t talking to him. “Zacchaeus,hurry up and come on down. I’m going to stay at your house today.” Well, Zacchaeus hardly knew what to do with himself as he scampered down the tree and began to lead the beloved child of God to his house. But this left the people in the crowd incensed. “Jesus has gone to a sinner’s house as a guest,” they exclaimed. How could this be? But it must have been quite an experience that Zacchaeus had with Jesus, it must have moved him beyond the person that he was and towards the person he knew he should be, the person the Spirit demanded that he be. Excitedly he exclaimed, “I will give half of everything I have to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay them back four times as much.” And just like that all the boundaries placed on him by the old order of the world, all the greed and materialism, all the hatred and disdain for his fellow person vanished into the light of the new order. Jesus, the bearer of the new being had visited this person, this sinner, and his life would never ever be the same. And in this visit, in this single touch from the Christ, a new life erupted where before there was nothing but the shell of a person. Zacchaeus had found salvation. Had found, hope. Had found, life.

At its heart, passionate worship is about the same experience. As we, as the family of God, come together into this place, we make radical affirmations that fly in the face of the old order of the world and incorporate believers and nonbelievers into the new order. During confession, we come face-to-face with the Jesus who dwells in our midst and in our hearts and like Zacchaeus we have the experience of knowing those places in which we have failed to live up to our best selves. In our confession we take a few moments to acknowledge our need for forgiveness from God and one another but also that we need to be reassured of our pardon, that we are still the beloved of God. That nothing that we have done in the past exists outside the bounds of grace or out of the bounds of redemption. The world out there shackles us to our failings and struggles. Tells us that we are too old or too fat or too short. Tells us that our chief value comes from our ability to consume goods and services. When we confess and are pardoned we are given a different message. A message of hope emanating out of the darkness of uncertainty. A message of peace that moves beyond the hand-to-hand combat that occurs in so many parts of the world. A message of love out of which we emerged at the beginning of time and to which we will one day all return. We we gain pardon we are reminded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

In this way, passionate worship is not the giving of part of our lives to God. It is the movement of God, drawing us to be reconciled to the Divine and to one another again and again. It is a radical stand against a culture and a world that is growing increasingly individualistic in its emphasis. When we gather together for worship, when we pass the peace, we radically proclaim that at the center of our being is not ourself but the family of God, represented here but containing all people in all places. We are proclaiming that here in this place, if you enter into the door, you are grafted into our family because you are already members of the family of God. In a world that is so often telling us everything that separates us, in passionate worship we tear those walls of separation down instead embracing our brother and our sister as our brother and sister and in this take our place as ministers of the reconciliation of creation with God. That which was torn asunder has been brought back together in the grace of God represented in the worlds, “the peace of Christ be with you…”

And when we sing, we sing because from the beginning of our faith, those who worship God often do so in song. We sing because we are called to take our places with those who have come before us singing, “Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee.” We sing because we want to join those who are struggling in the faith today but continue to be moved by the “God of wonders beyond our galaxy.” We sing because we are called to join “our voices with the heavenly choirs and with all the faithful of every time and place, who forever sing to the glory of your name, Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” In a time in which churches are divided between traditional and contemporary worship, passionate worship demands not labels but authenticity. Not labels but genuine love and devotion to the spirit of God. Not labels but exuberance and excitement and joy.

And we come together around table in worship because we know that there is a time in the not too distant future in which all God’s children will gather around table like this. Will break bread and share cup. Will see all those who have come before us and all those who will come long after we have returned to the earth and we will all be seated together in the realm of God, with Jesus as the host. Passionate worship demands that we see this table and begin to wonder who else might we bring in here. Who else is missing from here. Who else needs this meal to know that in God is sustenance for the living of this day and the next no matter how hard the path your tread is.

Finally, we give of ourselves in our offering not because we feel some kind of obligation to meet the financial demands of the church. Not because we worry that our neighbor is watching. But rather because we are called to reach out in loving embrace to those places and those people in the world who suffer and as a church we are called to use our resources to alleviate suffering of all people. To feed all people. To clothe all people and to repair the breaches that have been suffered by competition over the dwindling resources of the planet. When we come to a time of offering we do so because we know that we are called in each and every moment to be as Jesus was and give of our whole being. Give of our time, in every time and place. Give of our talents, because the world is in desperate need of talented people to seek to solve problems. Give of our resources because the people of God share what we have we everyone. We, like those first disciples, believe that we should offer all we have for the good of the whole, worshipping together, praying together, breaking bread together, until all are fed of the spirit and of food.

Zacchaeus, broken, greedy, and a shell of life, encountered Jesus on a road traveling through Jericho and his life was forever altered. Everything that mattered to him before no longer held value. Everything that he had worked for no longer meant anything to him. Every possession he had only convicted him of his broken self. But in the light of redemption he couldn’t move fast enough to follow Jesus where ever he went. In passionate worship we experience the same thing as our lives are brought together with the person of Jesus, with the love of God, with the movement of the spirit until we can do no other but shout with joy and thanksgiving for the great things that God is doing in our lives and the life of the church. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

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