Keeping Jesus at the Center (in a world that pushes him to the margins)

The change that Zacchaeus experienced shows us that when we put the biblical Jesus at the center of our lives, we are letting go of the desire for power and security as the world understands it.  Being centered in Jesus involves Curiosity (to learn and grow more), Communion (with God through prayer), Obedience (living out what we believe), and Trusting God in the midst of uncertainty and risk.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 19:1-10


I don’t know about you, but in my experience, change like what happened in Zacchaeus’ life usually doesn’t happen that fast.  It’s usually gradual, one small step forward and two big steps backward.

But there are times when transformation takes place in a way that we can only say is a “God thing” like what happened with the wolf when it met up with St. Francis in the woods outside of Gubbio.  And like what happened when Zacchaeus encountered Jesus that day in Jericho.

Now of course we could see that day as a start for Zacchaeus, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus that would involve all kinds of ups and downs, like we all have.

I mean there were certainly more details to Zacchaeus’ story than what Luke reports in his story.  Like, did Zacchaeus had a wife and children?  I would guess that he did, in that culture. And if so, how did they respond to his change of heart?

I mean, his family had benefitted financially from Zacchaeus’ cheating tax collecting practices, and probably had a nice lifestyle to show for it.

Did he talk things over with his family before announcing to Jesus that he was going to give half of all that he owned to the poor, and pay back four times the amount to people he had cheated of their tax payments?

I’d guess there would be some pushback, because it would likely affect the family’s way of life.  I can just hear them protesting “What about the bigger house we were going to buy? And that trip to the pyramids in Egypt we had planned?”

And I wonder how Zacchaeus’ fellow tax collectors responded to what he did.  Certainly his actions of making amends and paying people back would make his fellow tax collectors look pretty bad in comparison.

Who knows?  It could be that Zacchaeus  a) got fired for acting out of character for a tax collector and causing dissension among the ranks or Or b) he stayed with his profession, and tried to work for reform from within or c) he quit, realizing that in good conscience he couldn’t continue in such a corrupt profession.

Though we don’t know for sure what happened with his family and his job, one thing that we do know is that Zacchaeus was a changed man after spending time with Jesus that day.

We can say that Jesus—and the values of his Kingdom–moved closer to the center of Zacchaeus’ life and his reason for living that day. And he began to capture a new vision for how to live as disciple of Jesus.

It was a costly vision, because it involved sacrifice, and change that was disruptive to the status quo of his familiar daily life and routine.

And making restitution with other people like Zacchaeus said he would do is costly; it puts a dent in your wallet and also could put a dent in your pride, confessing your mistake it to the person you had harmed, asking for forgiveness.

So the road ahead for Zacchaeus in following through on his promises was not an easy one.  Yet nonetheless the way he responds in the story seems to convey a sense of joy and freedom that he may have never experienced before.

Zacchaeus’ story kind of reminds me of St. Francis’s first encounters with Jesus and his conversion toward putting Jesus at the center of his purpose for living.

As I mentioned to the children, during my time in Italy I spent some time in the area where Francis spent most of his life, which is the province of Umbria.

I had brought along this book with me to read while I was there—“Francis: The Journey and the Dream” by Murray Bodo.  It’s a biography of his life told in short stories.

There are stories of dreams and visions that Francis received from God, and encounters with people that had a mystical component to them, where Jesus’ presence was so real to him.

One of his encounters was with a leper on a road outside of Assisi.  Like most people, Francis had been repulsed by getting close to a person with leprosy.  But here on this road, he felt moved to get close to the leper, so he approached him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him on the cheek.

Francis felt joy and freedom when he did this, and in a real way he saw the face of Christ in the gaze of the man with leprosy.  In Mother Teresa’s work on the streets of Calcutta, she would call this “Jesus’ distressing disguise”. 

A little later, when Francis decided to devote his life to serving Jesus, one of the first things he did was go and live in the leper community of Gubbio, washing their sores and taking care of their needs.

And as Francis continued to center of his life on Jesus, he took the vows of poverty and celibacy, and described his life with the metaphor of being married to God in a phrase he called Lady Poverty.

Bodo describes it this wayLady Poverty was the symbol of the paradoxes of the Gospel: richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness, beauty in the sordid and shabby, peace in the midst of conflict and temptation, fullness in emptiness, and above all, love in detachment and deprivation.  P. 11

Throughout all the stories of St. Francis’ life, we see this life of paradox in the way of Jesus that we catch a glimpse of in the story of Zacchaeus we heard today.

It’s an invitation to a life where “if you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, then you will find it”.  That if you are willing to give everything up to seek after God’s kingdom, then everything you truly need will be given to you.

This is what centering your life on Jesus is all about.

There were people—lots of people—who thought St. Francis and his band of brothers and sisters were crazy, just like there were lots of people who thought that Jesus and his followers, which now included Zacchaeus, were crazy.

And because the way of Jesus is so countercultural, the culture of mainstream society will reject it and constantly try to push it to the margins.

And because you and I live and breathe and swim in our culture, we are influenced by its values in ways that make it hard to keep Jesus and his paradoxical way at the center of our life.

Like we get messages that tell us that happiness and security are found in having more stuff.  We are given examples of people in high positions who build themselves up at the expense of tearing other people down.

We are told that we have a right to get revenge on someone who wronged us, instead of seeking reconciliation.  We are attracted to the glory of “going it alone” to accomplish something, instead of having the humility to ask for help or work together with others in community.

In so many ways we are tempted to trust in other things and other ways of living and put them at the center instead of trusting God to protect us, provide for us, satisfy us, and show us the way to live.

One of the biggest temptations many of us in our country are facing right now is getting so wrapped up in the upcoming midterm election.  At least that’s something that’s consuming a lot of my time, mental and emotional energy right now.  Do any of you feel that way?

Yes, it is an important election with significant consequences for our country’s future.  And I think it’s important as citizens of our country to be involved in the political process.  But sometimes it feels so stressful and downright ugly.

And as I’ve been preparing for this sermon, some questions have been coming to my mind, like:  Am I so wrapped up in politics and this election that it’s become the center of my life right now, and pushing Jesus out to the margins?

Does keeping Jesus at the center involve remembering that my primary allegiance is to Jesus as a citizen of God’s Kingdom, and that I can trust God more than any political leader or party?

In the midst of all the hype and mean-spiritedness, and being bombarded by ads and attacks on TV and social media, can I stay centered on Jesus and continue to remember that ultimately, God is in control and his Kingdom will ultimately prevail?

And I’m not talking about the kind of control that Christian Nationalism is promoting.  Some Christian churches and influential leaders are giving their blessing to political leaders they see as anointed by God,

And they’re trying to gain political power to usher in a more “Christian” society that they believe is the destiny of the United States.

They’re claiming to want to put Jesus at the center of society, but the problem is that they are making Jesus into this super masculinized strongman figure, who is completely out of character with the Jesus that I see in the gospels.

So putting this type of Jesus at the center of our society and life will only push us farther away from the core of the values of God’s Kingdom.  Really, it’s idolatry.

The paradox is that when we put the biblical Jesus at the center of our lives, we are letting go of the desire for power through coercion and violence as the world and its political parties understand it.

And we end up being on the margins of society.  But that’s exactly where I believe the church needs to be.  Because it’s at the margins where we can truly be a prophetic voice and witness in society, speaking truth to the powers that be.

In closing, I’d like to get a little more practical.  What does the story of Zacchaeus teach us about how we can keep Jesus at the center of our lives?

Here are four words that I see are key in being centered on Jesus:

The first word is Curiosity:  Zacchaeus was curious to see who this Jesus was, so he climbed up a tree to get a better glimpse of him.  Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but in my experience it goes a long way in helping us learn and grow.

Let’s continue to learn more about our world and the different people in it.  And let’s continue to learn more about Jesus.  Let’s read more, have more thoughtful conversations with people, especially with those who see the world differently than we do.

The second word is Communion:  What changed Zacchaeus was spending time with Jesus, face to face.  I imagine that their time together was void of distractions.  They were present with each other and gave each other their undivided attention.

For us, we don’t have Jesus in person with us but we can have communion with Jesus through prayer.  He promised his Holy Spirit to be with us, which is his presence in a very real way.

It does our soul good to spend time in solitude and silence with God.  It helps strengthen our relationship with God, it helps us keep things in perspective, it helps us keep centered, it can even help relieve stress.

I think of the image of a making a pot on a wheel, that when it is off-center it it’s all lopsided and disoriented, but when the potter centers it, it’s peaceful and in balance.

The third word is Obedience.  We can keep Jesus at the center through obeying what we know to be right according to the values of God’s Kingdom.  Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus led to him take action to make amends with those he had harmed, and showing generosity to people who were in need.

Most of us here have a lot of knowledge of what Jesus taught.  But sometimes we keep it in our head and don’t live it out, maybe because we’re afraid of the consequences, or unwilling to let go of something that we’re holding on tight to.  Let’s take risks and show courage to practice what we preach and believe.

The last word is actually two words– Hope and Trust in Jesus.  Zacchaeus’ radical actions showed that he was trusting Jesus with his life and his future in a way that he never had before.

He was now he was stepping into a great unknown, going way out of his comfort zones, but he wasn’t going alone, because his life was focused and centered on Jesus and he knew that God would be with him.

In the midst of a world where there is so much political, social and economic uncertainty, can we put our hope and trust in God as our provider and our anchor?  In the days ahead, let’s remember the words of the psalmist in Psalm 33

“We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.  May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.”  (vs. 20-22)  AMEN.

I’d like us to listen to a song that I think has a lot to do with keeping centered in Jesus.  It’s by Christene DiMarco and it’s called “The Field”.  It’s about the joy and contentment of living in the presence of Jesus, and a reflection on the parable Jesus told about the Kingdom of God being like a guy who found a treasure in a field, and went out and sold everything he had so he could buy that field.