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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Unlikely Guest

Luke 19: 1-10

Unlikely Guest

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Church in Harwich Port

September 11, 2016

Our theme for September is Hospitality. If you do a Google Search for this word you will get tens of thousands of hits, but you will get the impression that hospitality is a concert invented by people in the hotel industry. You will read about customer service and assume that hospitality is a concept invent by marketers. But like many of our best ideas in our society today hospitality actually comes from the Bible. Last week in our first sermon of the month we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 19. They were sitting in the heat of the day when three perfect strangers showed up at their tent, and they welcomed these folks like honored guests, state visitors or long-lost family. They sprang into action choosing the best meat, making savory cheese and baking fresh bread. They treated these people that they had never seen before like messengers from God.

The Old Testament story sets the original standard for Hospitality and it reminds us how God wants us to greet strangers and treat one another. The Bible tells us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But Jesus takes hospitality to a whole new level. Abraham took neutral people – and treated them with respect. But Jesus reached out to outcasts and listened to them. He went to the homes of people who had been shunned. He sought the company of folks who had earned society’s scorn and made the decision to socialize with them. In today’s story Jesus east with a tax collector.  

Now most of us don’t have a big reaction when we hear that Jesus ate with a tax collector but Jesus’ followers would have been stunned and repulsed by a tax collector. When the Romans invaded the territory in Jesus’ time they controlled lands they conquered by imposing heavy taxes and then hiring locals to collect those taxes. They did not pay these officials but instead turned a blind eye when the tax collectors added additional fees on top of the taxes. Everyone knew about this graft but no one had any recourse because these taxes were not optional and were backed up by Roman soldiers who could force you to comply with Rome’s laws.

As the taxes became more of a burden their injustice weighed heavily on the people of Israel. Then, as the tax collectors grew wealthy while the people suffered, folks grew to tax collectors. There was something about their collaboration and the way that they profited and took advantage of the situation that added bitter salt to the wound of their subordination. Now Jesus came to Jericho to teach and talk to people. Jericho was a prosperous town in those days due to the balsam industry and when the local tax collector arrived in the center of town, he was particularly wealthy and despised by all who saw him coming. So Zacchaeus arrived early before Jesus came along and then he climbed a sycamore tree where he could listen, unobserved. It so happened he was also small in stature and his perch gave him the advantage of being able to see Jesus as well as hear him.

Jesus must have noticed him because after he was done speaking he went to the tree and invited him to come down and then Jesus invited himself to the tax collector’s home for dinner, amid the disparaging clucking of his audience. What is happening here and what can we learn from it for our lives today?

In the first place, kindness is at the heart of hospitality. Jesus saw a man who had climbed a tree to listen, and something in Christ’s heart was touched. He ignored what his disciples told him. He ignored the gossip and real resentment in Jericho. He ignored everybody’s good advice and decided to treat this man as a human being. He decided to be kind to this stranger. His kindness made all the difference. Somehow he saw Zacchaeus not as a tax collector but as someone who needed a friend.

I have often said that it was your bedrock kindness here that won me over during the candidating process. But really it started way back when Peggy first came. That first spring she had trouble finding housing so some of you invited her to stay in your homes when she needed a place. I will never forget the kindness of the Terwilligers when they offered her their guestroom, whenever she needed it.

In his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul writes about the importance of kindness.  “Be kind to one another. Be gentle, tender-hearted and forgiving as God has been kind to you.”  For the fruits of the spirit are love peace, joy forgiveness and kindness. The people Paul approached had no knowledge of his religion, and at first no interest in Christianity, but Paul prevailed by being gentle with them. His open-hearted approach to faith proved winning to the strangers he met.

Fifteen years ago today when terrorists commandeered commercial airplanes and drove them into the twin towers in New York City, people all over the world responded. All air traffic in the United States was grounded and commercial airplanes from around the world headed for the US that day was grounded also. The air traffic controllers in Canada worked overtime to divert 255 planes to 17 Canadian airports. Of those 38 planes went to a small airport in Gander Newfoundland.    Gander is home to 10,000 people and the planes from Europe brought 7,000 passengers 17 dogs and cats as well as 2 great apes. The people of Gander responded that day and in the days to follow in ways that demonstrated the power of human kindness and true hospitality.  There was a bus driver strike in Gander, but all the drivers jumped into busses and began to bring people from the airport to public spaces to give them shelter and food. Restaurants and bakeries went into 24/7 production. When the schools and community centers were full of people then the locals opened their homes, fed strangers, did laundry, offered them showers and transported them where they needed to go for the week.

Work stopped in that small city as the whole community exhibited a kindness that has inspired the world ever since. For folks on the planes the human compassion of their hosts utterly transformed this awful experience and redeemed it. The act of extravagant hospitality changed them all – givers became receivers – the this splendid example of God’s kingdom at work. Hospitality is based on simple kindness.

In the second place humanity desperately needs of this kind of hospitality today. All over the world today we see wars and hear news about people who are being rejected for their religion. People are being ostracized for their race. People are being stigmatized here and abroad for things that should not matter. In France there is a big controversy about what Muslim women wear to the beach. These women, many of whom are French citizens have been discouraged from bathing because they wear bathing suits which offer full coverage. Ironically it is against the law in France to be this modest. But really I suspect it has nothing to do with modesty or fashion, and everything to do with xenophobia.

Henri Nouwen writes, “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying within them. Then the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of a newfound unity.

Finally, Hospitality is the gift that keeps on giving.

When Jesus looked at Zacchaeus that day in Jericho, he did not see an enemy of Israel. He did not see a scoundrel or a scumbag. He saw someone who was trapped in his own greed, and desperate to turn his life around. He recognized a man who had hope of redemption. He saw a child of God who had made mistakes, but who was ready to turn a new corner.

 When Jesus befriended Zacchaeus the tax collector felt differently about himself. He responded by giving his substantial fortune away to the poor. He further declared that he would restore four-fold the money that he had defrauded from people. His response to Jesus’ open-heartedness was to open his own heart.

One week after 9/11 air travel started to be restored and the visitors tried to pay their hosts for their extravagant hospitality. But the people of Gander refused to take any money for their hospitality back in 2001. One of the women on the first plane out of Gender was a professional fund raiser and after they took off she started to raise money for scholarships for the youth of Gander. People all over the plane that day pledged their support and by the time they reached New York they had raised $15,000 in pledges or outright gifts. When folks returned home and word spread of the hospitality in Gander more people contributed.  The story of Gander has been told hundreds of times in the fifteen years since 9/11 and now the scholarship fund is up to $2 million. One of the students who earned the first scholarship went to college and then on to medical school. Now he is returning to Gander to bring his newfound expertise to the local community there.

You and I know that many acts of kindness never get the eyes of a professional fund raiser. Many good deeds never make it into a story on NPR. But the truth is the people of Gander has their reward before their guests started to raise money. Back in those moment when the world was absorbing the news of a diabolical act of terror, these kind people of Newfoundland took a stand for human kindness. They turned the tide that day, in an atmosphere where people might be expected to be suspicious, guarded and nasty they stood up to waves of xenophobia and treated strangers with openness, with respect, and with true kindness. Hospitality is a gift that keeps on giving.  


Pastoral Prayer:  Taken from Prayers for Chautauqua  by Barbara Brown Taylor

Merciful God you created us for love.

Today we give thanks for quiet acts of splendid courage- for mother and father, sister and brother, husbands wives, partners neighbors friends who have through acts of heroic loving saved lives, quieted pain, provided healing laughter.

Their compassion breeds hope in a world grown too easily cynical.

Today we pray for those we know who need your special care…

Today we remember all those whom the world has crowned heroes and heroines. They bear the burden of huge expectations, yet they wrestle with the knowledge of their own imperfection. Help them not to take their press too seriously and to find the capacity to laugh. Give them the gift of love from those who truly know them, and know that we all all flawed and capable of glory.

Almighty God creator of ordinary people equipped for extraordinary tasks, we give thanks for all your thankful people who have found your will in the grand procession of praise throughout the world and down through the centuries and down to our own time and place. We hear their stories in the pages of scripture, in the records of history, in the recollections of our families,  and in our own childhood memories. As we remember them inspire us to rise to their ranks to be bold as they were and brave as well… Amen

Posted: Sunday September 11, 2016