From September 24, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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We’re going to get to our second reading in a moment, but first I want to visit briefly a passage from the gospel of John, not even a passage, just one verse, and not even one verse, but just a part of a verse. It’s the first part of John 1:14 and if you were to open your pew Bible it would read: And the Word became flesh and lived among us.  If you don’t know much about what’s going on in the first chapter of John that’s OK. Let me just tell you that it’s a poetic and symbolic summary of how and why Jesus comes into the world.

In this chapter, the author refers to Jesus as “the Word.”  The first verse of the chapter is: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God. But right now I’m more interested in: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. And even more than being interested in that verse, I’m interested in how John 1:14 is translated in a translation/paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Here’s how it reads: Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Now, technically, that’s not really a good translation of this verse.  But, I want to suggest to you it may be a good interpretation of this verse. Jesus moved into the neighborhood. And even more than a good interpretation of this verse, I think it is a good theological summary of much of Jesus’ ministry and who he was.

Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Right now, at Fairview, we are in the middle of a Sunday morning series on “Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of Each Other.”  We’re learning about God’s call to love God by loving our neighbor, we’re taking specific steps to practice loving our neighbors. And this falls right in the beginning of a larger journey we are on as a church of learning about our neighbors, learning about our community, listening to God and seeing how God is busy in our neighborhood and figuring out how God is calling us to be part of that work.

All of this hinges on getting to know our neighbors. And that’s what I want to focus on today. And not figuratively. We’re going to explore getting to know our neighbors, my neighbors, your neighbors, the churches neighbors. The people that are near us. The people that we interact with and see day to day.

Before we go further, I want you to do an exercise with me.  This is something you can write down or you can just do mentally.  I want you to name your neighbors.  Take the houses around you, next door, across the street, on the other side of your back yard. And write the names down of the people who live there. Parents, children. Extra credit for pets.

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we don’t have any record of where Jesus lived and who his literal neighbors might have been, but we have plenty of examples of Jesus encountering people in their homes, where they work, where the live. In their neighborhoods.  Ruby read the story of the calling of Levi (who we know as Matthew). Levi was a tax collector, Jesus met him at work and called him to follow, and then the next scene takes place at Levi’s home where he is having Jesus and other guest over for a big dinner.

We have a similar story in Luke 19:1-10. Another tax collector, another meeting in a neighborhood, and another invitation to dinner at home.

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This passage starts in Jericho.  Jericho was a nice city. It was on a major trade route. It exported a lot of crops and goods. There was one point in earlier history where Mark Anthony was supposed to have presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra. Zacchaeus appears to be the chief tax collector for the Romans in Jericho, and that’s a pretty good job, in some respects.  With all this trade, with all this wealth, there were plenty of taxes to be collected.

Taxes worked a bit differently in the Roman world. It was kind of a franchise deal. Each city or area would have a tax collector, and Rome would tell that tax collector how much taxes he was to collect from the city.  This was how much money the collector owed Rome on the area’s behalf.  But Rome didn’t say that the tax collector only had to collect that much.  He was free to collect more in taxes from the people, and then keep the extra for himself. 

The more taxes a collector collects, the more money he pockets.

That’s Zacchaeus’s job.  So he is hitting people up for their fair share of taxes, and then some.  Add onto this that he was a Jew helping the Roman occupiers.  It is safe to say that Zacchaeus was probably not a popular man in the Jewish town of Jericho.

But then one day, Jesus is “passing through” Jericho. He’s walking through the city, walking through the neighborhoods. And he’s kind of like a rock star, all these people want to see Jesus, including Zacchaeus. And so the crowds start forming. The Bible says that Zacchaeus is not a tall man, so he climbs up a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And then something happens. And this is where we get our first lesson from Jesus about getting to know our neighbors.

What happens is that Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Jesus looks up into that sycamore tree and sees Zacchaeus, who is trying to see Jesus.  I wonder, how often do we see our neighbors?  How often do we see the people we live near? Literally, how often do you see your neighbors?  Earlier I asked you to name your neighbors, now take that list or mental list and think of the last time you saw them. Maybe in the yard, walking the dog, driving to work.  When was the last time you saw your neighbors?

Back to Jesus and Zacchaeus.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and then, he speaks to him. He tells Zacchaeus to get down from that tree and hurry home because Jesus is coming over for dinner.

When was the last time you spoke to your neighbors?  Take a moment to think of the last time that you had a conversation with them.

Now as you are doing this, I’ll confess that I was a little ashamed as I did this exercise myself.  I’d love to tell you that I could name every one of my neighbors in the eight houses closest to us. I couldn’t. I could name at least one person in each house, but maybe not their spouse or all their kids.  We had a neighborhood block party this past weekend, so I did a little bit better in the last time I talked to them.  But I still wasn’t pleased with how little I’ve had conversation with some of my neighbors.

Marie who lives on one side of us, we see and talk to her with some frequency. She loves to work in her yard, and it’s common to say hi or have a conversation with her.  On the day of the eclipse a month ago, Carrie and I had a fun time of 20-30 minutes passing around our one pair of eclipse glasses with her and her son-in-law. But our neighbor, JoAnn, on the other side works in her lawn a fair amount, and I haven’t talked with her as much. Our neighbors across the street we don’t hardly see at all.

But Jesus speaks with Zacchaeus, and as we read, he does more than that. Jesus isn’t satisfied with a passing greeting in the street. He wants to sit down with Zacchaeus, to break bread with him, get to know him. Even though it causes quite a stir with those “religious folks” who can’t believe that Jesus would spend time with a tax collector.

But, look what happens!  Even before they leave the scene, even before they get to Zacchaeus’s house, Zacchaeus makes a promise to Jesus that he will stop his crooked ways, he will repay fourfold those he has cheated, and he will use his wealth to help those in need.  I guarantee you that people were surprised and shocked when they heard Zacchaeus say this.  But it’s even more interesting than that. The tense of the Greek verb here suggests that this may not be a new promise, that this is a present action that Zacchaeus is doing and he is promising to continue it.

If this was the case, I wonder if any of Zacchaeus’s neighbors knew this about him.  Had anyone taken the time to get to know Zacchaeus, to learn that he might be more than just a despised tax collector? Did anyone know why he was so eager to see Jesus?

When we take the time to get to know our neighbors, we are bound to be surprised at what we learn about them. There’s a church in Colorado, that decided they wanted to make loving their neighbors an important part of each person’s walk as a Christian, and that began with knowing their neighbors. So they challenged each person at the church to begin to know their neighbors, their names, what’s going on in their lives, their hopes, their challenges. I want us to watch a brief video where one couple tells of their experience.

I’d like to invite you to love your neighbors by knowing your neighbors. Maybe for some of you, you really do know your neighbors well, but I’m guessing for many of us, it’s something we could work on.

Before I end, I’d also like to give you another resource to help you love your neighbors and get to know your neighborhood.  In your bulletin, you should have a sheet that describes what a neighborhood prayer walk is.

Neighborhood prayer walking is just what it sounds like. Praying and walking in your neighborhood.  It is an activity that allows you to not just enjoy the outdoors and a nice walk, but to be mindful and aware of where you are, who is there, what is special about your neighborhood, what is unique. It also allows you to see with a new lens, so to speak. To look for things you may not have noticed before, to have God guide you to see new things, or to pray in specific ways.

I invite you to take this home and try prayer walking your own neighborhood this week. I’d also like to invite you to come next Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and we will be sent out to prayer walk the neighborhood around Fairview. Then we will gather briefly to share what we experienced on our individual walks.

Love God. Love Neighbor. Jesus said that that sums it up.

I’m game! How about you?