November 4, 2001
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

Luke 19:1-10
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When 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." 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." 8 Zacchaeus 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." 9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." (NRSV)

Matthew 16:13-18
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

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I got an email from a friend this week who said that she felt as though she might just implode with all of the stress created by anthrax and terrorism. She said that her anxiety level was off the scale as she waited for the other shoe to drop. She didn't’t know who to trust and felt as though her usual accepting nature had been subverted by her fears.

Email is wonderful, because I didn't’t have to look at her face when I suggested that she might try going to Church. It sounded like a platitude, but I didn't’t intend that – I was serious –

This is the place where together we can face the fears by working through issues that plaque our hearts and minds.

One of the things that has plagued me – and also my friend – is the fact that suddenly we are asked to be suspicious and watchful – and that feels like good advice, yet what are we to be suspicious of? Other people? People who are different from us? people of other faiths or nationalities? Yet that is counter to our faith as Christians – you can’t love one another and exclude people that are different – and besides that – we are the melting pot nation, almost everyone is different. Once that was a source of our pride, now it should produce a heightened sense of suspicion. And yet I know notice people in ethnic garb and I wonder – should I worry? And I feel guilty. I know what Jesus would say to me.

After all, Jesus finds a tax collector in a tree and announces that he will have dinner at his house. – tax collectors were the worst – because they charged people more than their actual taxes and then took a cut of what they collected. They worked the system and – they got rich by cheating innocent people. No one liked tax collectors, except maybe those who benefited from his fraud. But Jesus defies expectations and traditions and invites himself over to Zaccheus’ house. And - in doing that he is telling Zaccheus of God’s forgiveness, in other words, Jesus offered Zaccheus salvation – that was probably a shock to all the good people standing in the crowd. In religious terms, Zaccheus was a lost soul – but Jesus found him and saved him.

Jesus not only saved Zaccheus, but he saved us – because he showed us and everyone who was there in the crowd that day, who Zaccheus really was. Jesus saw something much deeper in Zaccheus’ heart, Jesus knew Zaccheus and understood that if he offered forgiveness to Zaccheus, that Zaccheus would make restitution. Jesus taught us to think outside the box and not make assumptions about God or people.

But the lesson goes even deeper than just learning that Jesus meant it when he said Love your neighbor as yourself. As is usual with the Gospel, there is a twist here that we need to pay attention to –

Dale Bishop – a UCC expert on the Middle East – spoke at the UCC CT. Conference annual meeting… he said the Church always gets is wrong. When we should be getting political we tend to get more religious. When we should be getting more religious, we get political.

This passage reminds us that although it is tempting to be political in these uncertain times, what we really need to do is be focusing on our faith.

You see, before Jesus could tell Zaccheus that he was worth forgiveness and salvation – Zaccheus had to be ready to hear it. Zaccheus had to put himself into a position that would let him be open to what Jesus would tell him. Zaccheus had to decide who Jesus was first.

Zaccheus climbed that tree – all by himself – because he know that there was something good to see – and he wanted to be a part of it… and he was rewarded…

This is not much different from the time Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am” - some said you are Elijah and others said “ you are John the Baptist” and Simon said – “you are the messiah” At that point Jesus gave Simon a new name, Peter – the rock – and said on you I will build my Church….

Have you decided who Jesus is? Now I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s and I was taught that Jesus is the ethical teacher. But my heart cries out – there must be more to it than that – otherwise how do you explain 2,000 years of followers? Who is this Jesus?

Have you decided who Jesus is? Is Jesus the one who guides you and directs your life? Is Jesus the one you turn to for comfort and peace. Is Jesus the one that wraps a blanket of quietness around your soul, and lets you rest.

Who is Jesus for you? Is he the one that will offer you forgiveness when no one else does – is he the one that holds out a hand for you to grasp when all else is lost. Is he the one who will see your faith and offer you salvation?

Have you decided who Jesus is? Is he the one God sent to anchor us in love - to help us understand that love is enough. Is he the one who draws us closer, who wants to have a personal relationship with us?

Who is Jesus? Is he the one that you would climb a tree to see?

There is nothing easy about the times that we live in – there are many questions to be asked and answered – but the first one we need to attend to as Christians is the fundamental – “Who is Jesus?”

My friend who was so filled with anxiety, emailed this story to me as an answer to my question about Church.

A dad wanted to read the newspaper, but his young daughter was bothering him with questions. He tore a map of the world out of his paper and then tore it into small pieces. He gave it to her to put back together, thinking that it would take her a while and he could have some peace. In only minutes she was back, with her puzzle put together perfectly. The father was surprised and asked how she did it. Oh, she said – there is a picture of Jesus on the back – when I put Jesus together the world came out just right.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one that invites – no, implores us to join him at this table… because he wants the world to come out just right. Amen

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