|Minister's Sermon - 5th January 2020|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church|
Sunday 5th January 2020
My first conscious experience of Christian fellowship was in my second year at university. In between my first and second year, I’d been on holiday in the West of Ireland, and spent some hours sitting by the sea with a book. When I left, I knew I’d try church again, ‘though I can’t describe what led me to that conclusion. When I returned to uni, I shared a house with four young women, one was a Methodist, one a Catholic and the other two were atheists as I had been. Since I’d grown up in the Catholic church I went to church with Mary. Then I met Amanda’s friends. An ecumenical student group that included the Methodists and called itself Open Door. They included me in. I felt welcomed and accepted as I was. So, one Sunday, I went with her to the Methodist Church and it was the same there. The rest is history. God was using them to draw me into a fellowship – not just with them – but with God and God’s world. And that’s one of the key things about the first habit we’re going to explore. Fellowship usually begins with other Christian people, but if that’s where it stops, it’s not the fellowship the early church experienced. And that’s because the ten habits are connected. As we share fellowship it deepens when we study the bible, pray, share communion, worship, and eat together. It’s extended when we serve other people and share our resources with gladness and generosity. And when our fellowship is deep and warm and open we’ll attract new people, and share in making more disciples. In 2001, a survey of Church life across the traditional churches in Britain, revealed some challenging things about Methodist churches. Methodists, it said, saw fellowship as being more important than others churches. But what we meant by fellowship was different from others. For us, prayer, bible study and discussion groups - the things that feed and deepen fellowship - were less important to us than social and practical activities. I suspect the church hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years. So, even ‘though we may wonder what we have to learn about fellowship, there’s always something more! And the point of exploring these ten habits is to deepen our practice of them as individuals and as a church. To keep you in touch with what’s going on over the two months, and to help you deepen your practice of the habits, each household will receive a folder. As we begin each new habit, there will be new sheets to introduce the habit, suggest ways you can explore and form it on your own, and give you an overview of the two months. And we begin today - with the story of Zacchaeus the tax-collector – as an introduction to fellowship.
This isn’t a reading I’d connected where fellowship before I started! And it might have surprised you too. But I’ve found it helpful and challenging. There are three things I want to say about it. First, about the fellowship Zacchaeus is seeking, with Jesus. Second, about the fellowship Jesus is seeking, with Zacchaeus. And third about the fellowship Jesus invites Zacchaeus, the onlookers and us into. I’m going to use a picture for each point.
The picture we all have of Zacchaeus is of a little man up a tree. This one is by Edmond Manning. Luke tells us that he was trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but the crowd was in the way, so he climbed up a tree. It’s not clear whether Zacchaeus wants to be noticed or not. Luke only says he was trying “to see who Jesus was.” So, it might seem as if he was comfortable to see Jesus at a distance, except that what he does is extraordinary! Running, hurrying, climbing trees was not proper adult behaviour. And this suggests that Zacchaeus really did want something more. (1) Debie Thomas says “Zacchaeus recognizes that he needs to shift, to move, to relocate… [and] he’s willing to risk looking” silly, not only to see Jesus more clearly, (2) but also to be in fellowship with him. But what about us? Have we noticed that we are struggling to see Jesus, God or our faith clearly? Do we wonder whether we need a new angle, a new perspective, a new opportunity to explore what the Christian life is really about? I hope that Holy Habits might be that for us, as individuals and as a church, because even ‘though it’s 20 years since the Church Life Survey – and the Methodist Church is clearer about what it’s for – the way we live out our faith hasn’t changed much. We know change is needed, but how far are we prepared – like Zacchaeus was - to shift, to move, to relocate? Mostly, we continue to do what we’ve always done, working harder with fewer people and fewer resources, without changing our focus. But what Zacchaeus’ story invites us to wonder is whether seeking deeper fellowship with Jesus is the starting point for our renewal. It won’t come without a cost ‘though. To our dignity, our standing, or our ways of seeing things.
My second picture is by Sieger Koder and it’s a picture of Zacchaeus welcoming Jesus into his home. When Jesus saw him in the tree, He “said to Zacchaeus, ‘Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today.’” The word “hurry” is important. It echoes Zacchaeus’ excitement in running ahead of the crowd. But it’s also the same Greek word that described the shepherds’ “haste” in seeking out Jesus in Bethlehem. So, the consequence of haste is joy! And there’s another important word. The “must” – “I must stay in your house today” - suggests that Jesus’ fellowship with Zacchaeus is as vital to Jesus and to God’s kingdom as it is to Zacchaeus. Koder’s picture shows the moment when “Zacchaeus… welcomed him with great joy. And all the people… started grumbling, ‘This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!’” The grumbling was inevitable. As chief tax collector, his job was collecting Roman tariffs, on transported goods. He wasn’t popular, because he was collaborating with the hated Roman empire, and because like other tax collectors he used his position to over-charge. The word Luke uses to describe the grumbling, is the same word used of the grumbling Israelites, who complained against Moses in the wilderness. And with this, Luke reinforces the high social cost that Jesus pays, in associating with Zacchaeus. Yet Jesus still goes into his home, challenges those who object, and shows them something completely new. As a tax collector, especially a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was thought to be beyond redemption. Yet Jesus seeks fellowship with him. And just as Jesus sought fellowship with Zacchaeus, he seeks it with us, and anyone we’ve assumed is beyond the pale. This is challenging, because like the grumbling Israelites, and Zacchaeus’ community, we find it hard to change the way we see people – and ourselves. Debie Thomas recognises this. “I hold people hostage to versions of themselves they’re striving to outgrow,” she writes. “I know I refuse people the permission to change, because if they change, I will have to change too. Likewise, I know that there are areas in my life where God is asking me to… tell a new story about myself - a story my listeners might have high stakes in resisting. These are the places where I am tempted to… resort to a vision of humanity that is ordinary and mortal, not extraordinary and lasting.” So, the question for us now, is how are we being invited to “embrace with humility the people we have deliberately refused to see as God sees them?” (2) They might be people who do not think what I think, live like I live, or believe what I believe. People who’ve done things I’d never do. People I can’t accept. And what do we feel about God calling us into deeper fellowship? Whoever we are. However old or young we are. Whatever we’ve done in the past. “The spiritual life,” Debie Thomas says, “is evolutionary to its core — ‘change or die’ is its bottom line. Can we embrace that?” (2) This is what Holy Habits is inviting us to embrace. We may be practicing every one of the ten habits already, but God still calls us into deeper fellowship, because there is always more in the economy of God’s kingdom. More for us. More for others. More for God’s church.
My third picture isn’t a picture of Zacchaeus. It’s the icon known as the Hospitality of Abraham, the story of the three people who came to tell Abraham that his wife Sarah would have a child, even ‘though she was past child-bearing age. But it’s also an icon of the Trinity. The three people are identified as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by the colours used to paint their clothes. And the circular movement between each person’s gaze, is thought to be the icon-writer’s expression of the inter-weaving, the inter-connection of the three persons of the Trinity. Keep this in mind as I talk about what happens next in Zacchaeus’ story. There are two different versions of what happens next. The version we heard, suggests he responds to being welcomed by Jesus with this. “Listen, sir!” he says, “I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” In other words, he’ll do this, in the future. But these words can also be translated in the present tense, suggesting he’s already started paying back what he’s cheated from people. In other words, his seeking Jesus might have been a response to experiencing deeper fellowship! I don’t think it matters which – both are possible. The more important thing to notice, is that Zacchaeus’ repentance comes in the form of repayment, of restitution. And it’s for this reason that Jesus says to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham.” It’s when Zacchaeus returns the money he has cheated people out of, when he seeks economic justice, that he’s brought back into fellowship with the community. And as Debie Thomas says, “when salvation comes, it comes abundantly… without condition or exception. It comes for Zacchaeus, who is already trying to shed his sinful life and make reparations to those he has wronged. It comes for the crowds, as they dare to shed their preconceptions and stereotypes, and see Zacchaeus as a man in process, a man in whom God is at work. It comes because what Jesus sees in every person he encounters is so much richer, deeper, and fuller than our stingy eyes will ever take in apart from him.” (2) Zacchaeus sought fellowship with Jesus by taking the risk of moving to a different place. Then Jesus sought fellowship with Zacchaeus, by inviting himself into his home, despite the grumbling of the onlookers. And Jesus draws him into fellowship, not just for himself, but for the whole community. So that the purposes of God’s kingdom – which includes economic and social justice in which those who have been on the margins are included in - might be fulfilled. This is a theme Luke’s Jesus returns to over and over again. And it isn’t coincidence that gladness, generosity and sharing resources were central to fellowship in the early church. For it’s one of the ways God invites us to deepen our fellowship with the world in which we live. For fellowship is not just for us or for the church.
One of the reasons I have chosen to remain a Methodist, is summed up in the word, Connexion. That’s connexion spelt with an X. My spell check constantly tries to correct it! It’s an old Methodist word that describes something important about who we are. That Methodists are not individual Christians or churches. But are part of a wider, connected fellowship of Christians and churches, that belong together and support each other. Not for ourselves alone. But so that together, we can both serve the community beyond our walls, and witness to the vision of a Christian community that is much bigger, much broader, much deeper, than we can ever live out on our own. And this is affirmed in the covenant liturgy we’ll share in a moment. We’ve launched Holy Habits here today, because it offers us a concrete way of living out, the promises we will make. Because the theology of covenant is also the theology of fellowship. Our fellowship is rooted in our experience of how the Trinity, of God, Father – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit relate to each other, in creative, self-emptying, nurturing love. It’s what those who meet us, should glimpse in the way we relate to each other, and to the world around us. For when fellowship is taken seriously, by Christians and by the church, God’s generous and life-giving love will overflow into the world – not just through creation, in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – but through us and through this church too! Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
5th January 2020
(1) Ira Brent Driggers
(2) Debie Thomas
(1) Ira Brent Driggers https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4253
(2) Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2421-when-salvation-comes