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Worship and Sermons
Oct. 30, 2016
 

“Focus on the Fruit” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year C / 234th Sunday after Pentecost – Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19:1-10.

THEME: Practice seeing like Jesus who sees the fruit of salvation in the righteous actions of the saved and welcomes them, no matter how sinful they may have been.

 

        Do you have a favorite author?  A writer whose work you find so engrossing you can read the same book again and again.  Maybe it’s because the characters are so real, and the situations so vivid, it makes you feel like you’re actually in the story itself?

        I have several. Some are contemporary and rather low-brow:  Ian Rankin and his Scottish Noire police dramas set in Edinburgh; John LeCarre for his MI6 spy novels set in the Cold War; and Scott Turow and his terrific legal thrillers. 

        As an English major, I also developed a taste for the classics –Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Jane Austen and, of course, Charles Dickens.

        Many would argue – and I would agree - that Dickens created some of the most memorable characters in English fiction since Shakespeare:  Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes, Pip, David Copperfield, Samuel Pickwick, and Uriah Heep.

        And then, of course, there is the best known of them all:  Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

        We all know Scrooge is a miser and a recluse. Dickens describes him like this: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" He shuns any and all Christmas celebration, calling it "humbug."

        There’ve been several movie versions made of a Christmas Carol.  My personal favorite is the 1984 film with George C. Scott as Scrooge.

        If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember vividly how Scrooge, on Christmas Eve, refuses a heartfelt, cheery, personal Christmas dinner invitation from his own nephew, Fred, whose young wife Scrooge has never even met. 

        Then, with heavy sarcasm, he refuses two kindly gentlemen seeking donations to provide Christmas dinner for the poor.

        As an employer, Scrooge is equally callous and tight-fisted.  With resentment, he reluctantly allows his underpaid, overworked accounting clerk, Bob Cratchit, to take off Christmas Day with pay.  He calls this custom "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25th of December!"

        Scrooge is not a popular man – and he doesn’t care a whit.

        That, of course, is why his overnight repentance and redemption is so hard for others to believe.

        I venture to say the same can be said of Zacchaeus in our Gospel passage. 

        Zacchaeus is not just any old tax collector.  He’s the chief tax collector.  He supervises a network of tax collectors.  All of them ultimately work for Rome.

        As far as Rome was concerned, the provinces should bear the very heavy cost of administering the Empire.  Roads, protection, the governing and judicial system – all of those functions needed to be paid for. Zacchaeus and his network of colleagues were the means of collecting those funds.  Like Scrooge, none of them were very popular.

        Not only were they agents of the Roman overlords, but they made their living off the backs of their fellow Jews.  While Zacchaeus is very rich, the vast majority of his neighbors are very poor. 

        So, it’s no wonder the crowds won't make room for Zacchaeus.  In their eyes he’s a sinner of the highest order.

        But Zacchaeus won’t be deterred. He’s heard of Jesus – how, we don’t know. But he’s bound and determined to see who Jesus really is.  So he runs ahead, climbs a tree and perches himself out on a limb so he can get a good look.

        While he’s looking for Jesus, Jesus is looking for him.  When he sees Zacchaeus, he promptly invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home.  That’s the cause of much grumbling among the crowd. "How can this man eat with sinners?" they ask.

        Clearly, Jesus sees something in Zacchaeus the crowd does not.
 

        Zaccheus’ heart has been changed. He’s repented. “Look,” he says, “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.”

        In the Gospel of Luke, more than any other gospel, concrete actions like these that lift up the poor and marginalized are the very hallmarks of salvation.  They signify obedience to what John the Baptist commanded the crowds who came to him in the wilderness, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

        Well, this is exactly what Jesus sees in Zacchaeus:  the fruit of genuine repentance, the fruit of salvation.

        But this story leaves us hanging.  The unanswered question at the end is “Does the crowd ever come to see Zacchaeus the way Jesus sees him?”

        That leads to a question for you and me.  ‘Are you and I willing to seeing repentant sinners the way Jesus does?’  Or, by our refusal to welcome them, do we continue to stand between them and Jesus?

        In the world we live in, we confront this question, too.  Maybe nowhere more so than when we encounter someone who’s been released from prison.  

        Earlier this year, Governor Tom Wolf announced that Pennsylvania’s inmate population in 2015 dropped by nearly 850 inmates.  That’s the largest one-year decline in the state prison population in the last 40 years.

        That sounds like good news.  But, there are still a lot of ex-cons trying to make their way back into society.  The odds are against them.  National statistics suggest that within 5 years, 75% will be back in jail for another crime.

        Folks who work in community re-entry programs are the ones most familiar with the struggle to see these former convicts as Jesus would see them.  They know just how difficult it is for these ex-offenders to make a life for themselves on the outside, a life that keeps them out of prison.

        One of those programs is right here in Mechanicsburg at Grantham Church near Messiah College.  This is a Christian Ministry called Friends Over Fences.  The people who operate it include an ex-offender named Brian Bruce. 

        One of the pearls of wisdom that Brian brought to this ministry is to focus the work on those whose actions demonstrate they’re serious about turning their lives around.  Those are the ones who’ve truly repented and those are the ones Friends Over Fences works with.

        Even so, Brian and the others who volunteer at Friends Over Fences report that there’s still significant resistance on the part of many – even those in churches – to help these truly repentant ex-cons.  The co-founder of this ministry said, "This is like the ugly duckling of all ministries. This is something that has fear connected with it."

        If we’re being honest with ourselves, you and I will recognize that same fear inside each of us. It’s the fear that lingers in our minds when someone who’s done something wrong in the past now changes their ways and asks for forgiveness.  It’s the fear that, despite what their behavior indicates, they really haven’t changed after all.

        I’ve had people like that in my office.  Someone who’s been on the wrong side of the law for one of the most stigmatizing crimes of our age.  I could see this person is trying very hard to turn over a new leaf.  Nevertheless, I felt that same fear.

        I imagine it’s the same fear Scrooge’s nephew Fred felt when old Uncle Ebenezer turned up on his doorstep for Christmas Dinner after all. 

        What that fear does is, it tends to paralyze us.  It cuts us off from a relationship that has the potential to change us and the person seeking forgiveness.  If we give in to that fear, it will stop us from being the heart, hands and feet of Christ that welcome that person back into our community and our fellowship.

        Friends, that’s where you and I need to take our cue from Jesus.  Just as he did, we, too, should focus on the fruit – the change in behavior.  Where there is fruit of repentance, the repentance is real. 

        By the way, that’s every bit as true of us and our own repentance as it is for that of others.

        So, today, I leave you with two questions.  First, are there some folks in your life whom you’ve been keeping at arm’s length because you’re afraid they may not have really changed, despite behavior that suggests they have?

        And, second, let’s turn that question around.  As you and I consider our own lives, do our actions reflect hearts that are truly changed by Jesus Christ?  In other words, are we as generous in sharing our material wealth, especially to benefit those who live on the margins, just as Zacchaeus did with his wealth?

        In both those cases, let’s allow ourselves to be guided, not by the paralyzing power of fear, but by the proven presence of fruit: the fruit of genuine repentance.

        That kind of genuine repentance is appropriate everyday, of course, but maybe especially so today, Reformation Sunday.  One of the mottos of the Protestant Reformation is “Reformata, Semper Reformanda” – we are reformed and always reforming.

        That’s what Jesus wants for you and me, to be re-formed, and always re-forming: in our hearts and in the works of our hands.

        Certainly, old Ebenezer Scrooge was.  He would be the first one to tell you: that is no humbug.

        May it be so.  Amen.

 
Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:25 AM
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