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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

There's Hope for Greedy Craven Little Cowards


"There's Hope for Greedy Craven Little Cowards"

Luke 19:1-19

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Luke 19:1-10

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And 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 and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost…."

OK. Here's where the sermon title comes from.

First, Aflac Trivia time. Does it ring a bell for any of you? Of course not. It's a quote by Daffy Duck. Daffy gets a reward for deceitfully imprisoning the Tasmanian Devil. He's walking out of the zookeeper's office, almost done counting his money.

"Four thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight. Four thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine…"

The last dollar bill slips out of his four fingers and slides under the door of the fearsome Tasmanian Devil's cage. Daffy runs in the cage, shouting, "It's mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!" He comes out with his dollar bill while Taz is sitting in the corner with stars floating around his head.

Daffy says, "Like I said, I'm a craven little coward. But I'm a greeeeeedy craven little coward."

So, how does this relate to the scripture? I can't think of Zaccheus without also thinking of Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes set the standard for cartoon villains. And Zaccheus is really kind of a cartoony villain. He's rich. He's greedy. He's a craven little coward. And, one more thing.

Think of Bugs Bunny and all the characters who tried to catch him. Yosemite Sam. Marvin the Martian. Elmer Fudd. What do they all have in common? Other than the guy who did their voices? Yep. They're short. The more villainous the villain, the shorter the stature. You say, "But what about Daffy Duck?" Daffy was despicable. But it could be duck season just as easily as wabbit season. Wile E. Coyote was tall, you say. Yes, but he was also a pathetic failure who cried for help with small flip-up signs. He was no villain.

And so it goes. Lord Farquad in Shrek. The Chef in Ratatouille. Danny DeVito in… everything. Basically, if you want a comic, greedy craven little coward, aim low.

Does it seem like I'm on a soapbox? That's so you can see me over the pulpit.

So, here's Zaccheus. Comedic, cartoony - compact - Zaccheus. He's a villain. By his own admission. He's a thief, a weasel, an extortionist working for the occupation forces of the Roman Empire. He collects "taxes" like a Mafia boss, so the Romans can pay more soldiers to oppress his own people. He's despicable. He's a greeeedy craven little coward. A wee little man.

But for some reason, Zaccheus wants to see Jesus. So, he climbs a sycamore tree. More comedy, because this is not something a dignified adult male wearing a robe would do. So Jesus sees this little character hanging from the tree. He says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I MUST stay at YOUR house today." Maybe Jesus wanted a good laugh.

Zaccheus hurries down and receives him joyfully. Invites him home and fixes him dinner. I picture Jesus sitting in a very short chair.

Meanwhile, all the town is gathered outside the window, saying, "[Jesus] has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a... sinnerrrrrr."

After dinner, funny little Zaccheus says something profound. He stands up and says, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold."

Another cartoon reference, here. The Grinch's heart grew three times that day. (I know The Grinch was tall, but Seuss was no ordinary cartoonist. He was a doctor.) While Zaccheus may not have physically grown, his heart did. He grew in wisdom and in compassion that day. His height may not have changed, but his stature did. No longer wee, he. Of higher integrity be. Needed no tree to see righteously, giving his goods for free.


Something happens while Jesus and Zaccheus are having dinner. We don't know what. But when the story starts, Zaccheus, the tax collector, the Roman kiss-up, the cheat -- Zaccheus is a greedy, craven little coward. Everybody knows it, too. "Look!" they say. "[Jesus] has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."

"Sinner." That's probably Bible-talk for some other not-so-nice names for the little devil. They're used to pushing him aside. When Jesus came to town, the townsfolk pushed Zaccheus so far away from Jesus that the man had to climb a tree for a glimpse. Physically, they shoved him away. They turned their backs on him. They're the in-crowd; he is not.

Then, check this out. While Jesus is eating supper with Zaccheus, the townsfolk refocus their evil eye of shaming. It's not just Zaccheus they're grumbling about. Now they're grumbling about Jesus, too. Never turn your back on a preacher. They'll show up at suppertime and won't leave.

At the start of the story, it's Zaccheus; but by the end, it's the town who's full of greedy, craven little cowards. They'd rather stand outside the window and gossip than knock on the door and ask for a place at the table. Zaccheus becomes a real boy; the town turns into a cartoony clique that points fingers and says, "Shame."


I think in our minds, we all draw cartoony caricatures of who we really are. If we have a good feature, we exaggerate it in our minds. Or we have bad features that we blow up to comedic proportions.

We draw ourselves out, but that's not at all who we are in what we say or what we do. It's how we think we are, deep down. "I'm not really a greedy, craven little coward. I can be nice if I want to." Or, "I'm not as nice as everybody thinks. My heart is really pretty small."

Those are caricatures, like they draw for ten bucks at Dollywood. Nobody's as overly good or as totally terrible as we think we are. But in our minds, we exaggerate ourselves. Our goodness is gooder and our faults are faultier.

Which is what we do with other people, too. We find out one thing we like about them, or one thing we don't like, and we take it from there. We label it. We exaggerate it.

"She twerked on TV." "He's a Liberal." "She's a Tea Partier." "He's a Baptist, and he's dancing." "She's a vegetarian." "He's a Florida fan." "She's rich." "He's on food stamps." "She's old." "He's a Muslim." "She's Jewish." "He's ADHD with OCD and something else so bad it's TBD."

And, yeah, any of those could be accurate. But, then we go and blow up that one trait as big as Elmer Fudd's forehead, and we reduce a person to a squished-down, evil parody of who they really are.

A tax collector. A sinner. A guy who eats with tax-collecting sinners. Wee little people. Or maybe it's we who are too short in our assessments, too cowardly to risk the embarrassment of having to get to know. Too short on time to bother.

It's hard. It's hard work to break past the small assumptions. Take Zaccheus. He not only had to run ahead of the crowd, he had to climb a tree. And wait for Jesus to see him. Maybe he didn't want Jesus to see him. Maybe he was hiding in the branches and hoped he was camouflaged. Or maybe he fell out of the tree and landed on the road beside Jesus with a thud. It's OK. You can't hurt a Toon.

I don't know about that. I think it's reducing people to cartoons that might be the most hurtful of all.


How do you feel when people reduce you to a caricature?

Here's something you might not have known about Zaccheus. His name is Hebrew. It means, "Pure and Righteous One." Did the townsfolk think that was a joke? A small joke? Had they overlooked his complexity? Had he always been a bigger person than they knew? Maybe no one had ever tried to sit down and have a meal with him. We'll never know.

You know Zaccheuses. We all do. We all have people we dismiss. That we shove out of the crowd because they're different. We all do. That is all of us, except Jesus.

Jesus brings people in. Jesus brings in the short, the tall, the weird, the ridiculously bland and normal. Jesus brings in the greedy, the craven, the cowardly.

When you think about how Jesus got to Zaccheus's house, it wasn't because he was invited. Jesus invited himself. He said, "Come down here! Because today I'm having supper at YOUR house."

Jesus didn't pick Zaccheus because Zaccheus was so pure and righteous. Jesus picked him because he was lost.

"Today salvation has come to this house…." Jesus says. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost…."

See? There's hope. Even for greedy craven little cowards. Even for us.

Let's pray.

Real and true Jesus: Help us to stop making cartoons out of other people and ourselves. Help us to be grateful for your forgiveness, even if we don't invite you into our hearts. You bring more honest hope than we'll ever have for ourselves, more grace than we'd ever give to those who don't deserve it. Call us out of our trees. Grow us into less despicable servants of your name. Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Best Seat In Heaven Is Beneath You

2013-09-22 The Best Seat in Heaven is Beneath You

"Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left...." Mark 10:35-45

Can you believe apostles would ask a question like that?
But, when you think about it, seat selection's an important thing. 
Think how much time (and money) we spend getting the right seats on airplanes. 
Getting good seats at concerts. 
Think how hard the Mother Of The Bride works on table assignments for the wedding reception. 
Think about how treasured, how passed down as family heirlooms, season seats at Neyland Stadium used to be.

Where else do people stake out their seats? 
Maybe… church?? 
Do you ever notice how huffy other people get when you accidentally take their pew? 
Next time it happens, remember: there's always room in the front row.

Do you have a favorite seat in your home? 
Of course you do. 
It's where the cat is. 
Cats just know. 
Even animals have favorite seats.

There IS something about seats and where we sit.

We know it's not that important. 
But it IS important. 
To us. 
It's a silly thing, really. 
But where you sit says a lot. 
The people around you, the order and placement and seating arrangement. 
Remember in school when the teacher made you sit in alphabetical order and how horrible that was? 
Especially if your name is something like, Asbury, and you're always in the front row? 
Literally miles away from your friends, whose last names always begin with "W"? 

It's interesting, but almost every single time Jesus taught, the Bible says, he "sat down." 
That was the custom. 
A good teacher always sat down when saying something important. 
Even for Jesus, taking a seat was an issue.

So maybe we should cut the disciples some slack when they try to call shotgun. 

Here's the thing, though. 
If you're at a banquet, or in a palace throne room, it's no surprise who's going to be sitting in the seats of honor. 
Seats of honor are limited. 
Sometimes they come at a great price. 
There are very few questions when it comes to who's going to get them.
Jesus said, though, that we should seek out the seats of less honor. 
How many of those are there? 
Well, how many do you need? 
We can always pull out some old folding chairs with one short leg. 
Prime seating is limited. 
But general admission can always squeeze in a few more. 

And in unreserved seating, you never know who's going to be sitting beside you. 
It might turn out to be somebody amazing. 
Somebody fascinating. 
Someone you'd never have known if you held out for the table of dignitaries. 

Anne Lamott says, "I think we're all going to be really surprised at who's sitting next to us in heaven." 

Well, if even Jesus doesn't know the seating chart in heaven, if that's the way it works, then you can start being surprised right now. 

Where's the best seat in heaven? 
You might get there and think you've been assigned a seat that's beneath you.
Where's the best seat in this life?
It could be the one right beneath you.
Wouldn't that be heavenly?