Transformed Communities


Have you changed?

Change is tricky for most Presbyterians. There’s that old joke: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? “That lightbulb? My grandmother gave that lightbulb to this church!”

The truth is, though, that we all go through change. There’s the natural process of aging. We grow, we develop, there are things we can do now that we used not to be able to do, or the reverse has happened, where we are no longer able to do the things that we used to do. But change is much more than that. Life is marked by change.

Can you think of a way in which you’ve changed? Perhaps it’s a political change – you used to be conservative and now you’re liberal, or vice versa; or maybe it’s not that dramatic, but you’ve changed your opinion about one particular issue. Or the way that you look at the world now is different than it used to be – maybe more pessimistic than in the past, or more hopeful than you ever imagined. Maybe it’s theological – the way you look at God, or Jesus, or church has changed. That simple Sunday School faith has evolved or has been shaken or has gotten more sophisticated with the passage of time and the increase of knowledge.

Perhaps it’s something more personal. Maybe it’s shaking off histories of a family of origin, throwing aside an addiction or an abusive past; no longer hooked by the things that used to hook; no longer responding in predictable, even destructive, patterns. Why? Because somehow, somewhere along the way we changed.

Have you ever been in that situation where you run into an old friend, somebody who predates a significant change in your life, and they want to act like everything’s just the same, that nothing has moved on in the intervening years? Say, the two of you used to “tear it up” back in the day. It’s almost like you’ve grown up, and they haven’t, and they still want to go out like it’s those college days all over again.

Or maybe you’re home with family for the holidays, and they all remind you of the time you hit your sister in the head with a baseball bat because she was supposed to be the catcher and got too close, or that you once got her in trouble by writing her name on the table in her handwriting, or they think they’ve got you pegged because they remember that you used to sneak around curfew by always spending the night at Eric’s house because he didn’t have a curfew…Hypothetically speaking, of course.

It is often with our families that we are most aware of the ways we’ve changed. They still want to treat you like the irresponsible, messy, tempered child you once were. It’s almost like they’re a puzzle in search of that missing piece. But you’re different now, and you no longer “fit” the way you once did.

It’s exactly this story of change, of trying to shake off your past, that is at the heart of the gospel lesson. Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way up to Jerusalem. His reputation precedes him, so much so that the streets are crowded with people trying to get a glimpse or a word or even a miracle. And in the midst of this great throng is Zaccheus; little Zaccheus. He was the local chief tax collector. And he was rich. And both of these would have had him pegged by all in the community as a traitor (collecting taxes for the occupying Romans) and a cheat (lining his pockets with extra cash). They knew him well; or at least they thought they did. Perhaps we can imagine them elbowing him out of the way, keeping him from reaching the front, a not-so-subtle payback for years of being swindled. So Zaccheus makes like a Keebler elf, shimmying up the largest sycamore he can find. Jesus notices Zaccheus up in that tree, calls him down, and invites himself over. Zaccheus’ response, right there on the spot, is to give away half of everything he has for the sake of the poor. Not only that, he will pay back, with exorbitant interest, anything he has cheated from anybody.

It’s one of those stories that’s almost too good to be true. Here’s the city cheat, the one everyone knows, avoids, and talks about in low, unflattering tones. Along comes Jesus, and in a flash, he suddenly presents himself as the paragon of virtue, like he’s turned on a dime. How long is this transformation, this change, going to last? Does Jesus even reach the Jericho city limits before he’s back to his old ways?

The crowd seems to have gotten it right. Of all the people that Jesus wants to affiliate in this town, this Jesus who has become a symbol of the oppressed and the outcast, he chooses the one person in town that even the lepers don’t want to hang out with? “We know Zaccheus,” we can imagine them saying. “We grew up with him. He’s always had this Napoleonic thing going on. He’s never been straight with anyone ever in his life! Why would Jesus honor such a person? And why would he even think that a person like this could change so dramatically?” This new Zaccheus doesn’t fit the old Jericho puzzle.

Jesus, of course, knows something about what it means to be dismissed by those who think they know you best. When he first preached back in his hometown synagogue, everyone remembered him as “Joseph’s boy”, the little hick carpenter kid. “Isn’t it a wonder he can even read!” Jesus knows what it’s like to change but to be treated as though everything is still the same. Maybe, as Jesus passed through Jericho, he heard the crowd murmuring as they saw Zaccheus up there in the branches; and hearing how they spoke of him, maybe he felt a kindred spirit of sorts. And surely he knew that any interaction with the man would be a living parable.

When Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree, he knows full well what he’s doing. It’s as though he’s tossing a rock into the placid pool of Jericho water. And as the story draws to a close, we begin to see the ripples. Zaccheus is changed. His life is transformed. And as he lives into this new way of being, of generosity, of helping the poor and making good on his previous wrongs, as the ripples of his own life spread out, the whole community can’t help but be forever changed for the better. If even Zaccheus can change, why can’t we?

Have you been changed? How is it that God has changed you? How is it that Jesus has found you, too small to see through the crowd, hiding up in your sycamore tree, surrounded by assumptions, followed by a history that you can’t shake? Why are you bothering to read this? Out of the millions of things that you could be doing right now, with the world at your fingertips, why on earth would you be here? Could it be that God has changed you, or is in the process of changing you?

Maybe you didn’t even know that it was God, so meditated was your transformation by other people. Did God arrive in the form of friends who confronted you over an unhealthy habit? Was it a family member whose love was so persistent that it healed old wounds or shattered destructive stereotypes? Have you been, or are you now, part of a community that lifted you up when you couldn’t imagine standing on your own?

Every one of us can look at areas of our life that we would like to change, things about ourselves that we preferred that the world didn’t know about us. And those shames, those secrets, are reasons for prayer, for honesty in the face of God. After all, God knows all that already; and God still decides to love us anyway!

But for those places where we have been changed, where knowing Jesus has made our lives different, how do we respond? As a bunch of Zaccheuses ourselves, once we’re invited to slide back down into the middle of the crowd, what do we say? Better yet, what do we offer to God – of who we are, of what we have, of what we know?

This is where I encourage you to focus your prayer today. Where is it that I can tap into that place where I have been forever changed? How can the ripples of my response spread out and move a whole community that they might be changed as well? Can we open ourselves up to this question today? Are we willing to listen for the answer, and to go where it might take us?

Each one of us will have to answer this question differently. And some of us will have no idea where even to begin. So I want to offer two places where you might want to respond, two suggestions of where this story of transformation might intersect with your life.

  • The first is a pretty literal interpretation of today’s lesson: perhaps now is the time to make that next step in financial generosity. Do you tithe? That is, do you give away one-tenth of your income? Have you wanted to do that, but find it too daunting to consider? Could this be a time to move closer – maybe increase from 2% to 5%; or from 5% to 8%? Or do you tithe already? If so, could your generosity look more like Zaccheus’? Or do you even know what percentage you give away?
  • Yes? No? Then the second suggestion is this: last year, we created a congregational survey. Simply put, it is a listing of nearly everything we do as a congregation. Is there an area of the church’s life where you would like to offer your time, your talents? Have you been volunteering in one area for so long that you’d like to try something else? Or have you been waiting for an invitation to jump in and get your feet wet? Well, consider this your invitation.

I don’t know…Maybe none of this has resonated with you today. If so, then it is my prayer that the bigger reality sinks in: that it is God who calls us down from our perches and forever changes our lives. The crucial question is how respond with those lives. Because when we do, it is then that the change God has begun in us begins to ripple out into a community, indeed, into a world that is so in need of transformation! You probably can’t build a Habitat house by yourself. But together, we can build the kingdom of God. You definitely can’t be a choir of one. But a chorus of voices, of transformed lives, will echo out forever in a glorious song of praise!

Have you been changed? How will you respond?