Preaching Festival Recap #1: The Sermon

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Last night, the Academy of Young Preachers wrapped up a 3-day preaching festival in downtown Atlanta. This year I had the great pleasure of attending for the first time. I met a ton of people and made many new friends, including some Greek Orthodox folk, who are very cool, and a great storytelling preacher named Tina, among many others.

I was able to preach a sermon I’d been working on since June of 2012, and I’d love to share it with my readers now.

It’s called “Give Hope A Voice”

A Reading from Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was,but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.”

That awkward moment when everything falls apart.Five PM, on a balmy summer evening. Sparkly twinkles of light play across the walls of my room as sunbeams dance through the blinds on my window. The subtle smells of lemon and verbena waft gently from my teacup into the air as I turn yet another unforgettable page of Lauren Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, my thoughts begin to race.

“I’ll be done with seminary in less than a year. My parents are deciding this week whether or not they have to sell their house. The family conference is THIS Friday.

I hope they get to keep it. I hope my dad can find financial stability. The man deserves everything, and never asks for anything. I still don’t have a car, since mine ran out of oil right before summer break. I gotta get one. But I don’t have enough money yet. What am I gonna do? What is my family going to do?

The thoughts come slowly at first, but quickly snowball into a mountain of worry and distress. My breathing becomes shallow and I know what comes next if I don’t pull myself together. “Breathe in,” “breathe out.”

Too late.

The avalanche of worry is immune to the techniques I’ve learned over the years for dealing with anxiety. It’s the most epic panic attack of my life and if I don’t get out of my room right now, I’m going to die.

Good news! There’s an urgent care clinic right next to my neighborhood!

I get up and start the half-mile walk to the clinic. Dr. Shay comes into the exam room to talk to me. Embarrassed by my tears and angry that I can’t get a grip, I tell him what’s going on.

He brings in an oxygen tank. “Put the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.” He says.

“Oh ok, great. Thanks, pal, I’ll try that!”  Ten minutes with the oxygen mask later, I’m sent on my way, with a prescription for tranquilizers and a burning sense of shame at my lack of trust in God to take care of me.

I walk back to my house, climb into my bed and read my Bible until I fall asleep, cradling the promises of Christ in my arms.

That awkward moment, when everything falls apart.

Desperation is the worst – that nagging thought that there’s no end to this trial, that sinking feeling that there’s nothing good in the world. Desperation works because it’s got us convinced that hopelessness is our lot in life; that we are locked into the best we’ll have, and that the best we’ll ever have is a routine of striving for more.

It’s a day like any other day. Zach gets up and heads to the kitchen for some breakfast. He’s got  some left-over rosemary olive focaccia in the bread basket, and some sun-dried tomato pesto someone brought over as host gift for last night’s party. Ah, breakfast. His front-row seat at the flavor symphony makes him forget himself for a second and he gets lost in the crunch of the delicious bread and the creaminess of pine nuts, tomatoes, basil and parmesan cheese.

Then he remembers. Ten minutes ‘til time to leave! He downs the last toasty bite, then goes to brush his teeth and get ready for the day, making a quick note in his journal.

“Well, here we go again. It’s another great day to be a corporate lawyer! Journal, I didn’t want it to be like this. I was interested in law, just because it fascinated me. But now look at me. That one time I padded that one account, I was just gonna do it once so I could have a really good gift to give my dad for his birthday. He never thought I’d amount to anything. I thought a nice gift would prove him wrong, but it seems like every day, I prove him right.

Look at this place. I have so much stuff. My own washing pool, complete with the sanctification station I got on SALE, brand new stucco, and I bring home the best foods from the market every Sunday. Great life, right? Except, it’s just me. Don’t tell anyone, journal, but sometimes it gets really lonely here.
I know it looks like I have friends, I even had a party last night. But they’re not really my friends, not any of them. Power has its price I guess. They’re all afraid of me – afraid I’ll bill them double and charge them for our fancy lunches. You don’t think I don’t know the terrible things they say about me behind my back? They’re nice to my face, but I know somewhere deep down they despise me.

Sometimes I wish I could just start over.

Well, gotta go.”

Zach leaves the house, making sure to lock the door behind him. He walks out the front door of his glorious mansion, and down to the garage where his prized Ferrari lives. He looks with pride and self-loathing at the leather interior and the real wood finish. A few minutes later, he pulls out of the driveway and speeds off to work.

He arrives at his building and makes his way to his office, offering the obligatory greetings to co-workers and clients with a self-assured, slightly smug smile plastered onto his face. No one knows that inside, he’s writhing in pain.

By lunchtime, Zach can’t take it anymore. He doesn’t realize his irritability has a deeper root than just being cooped up in the office all day – gotta love paperwork day! He decides to go out  for lunch;

maybe his friend, Alon, will give him a discount.  He’ll order the Jerusalem sandwich. Mmm. Tomatoes, boiled eggs and fresh mozzarella, on black pepper and olive bread. Perfect.

On a crisp fall day, who could think of staying inside?! Corporate workers in power-suits leave their offices for lunch. College students enjoy a break from class at Java Fusion, the new coffee-house-slash-bubble-tea joint downtown.

H&M and Ikea bustle with shoppers as usual. It’s another typical afternoon. Suddenly, a commotion outside. Is that a parade? No, its just a bunch of people walking down the street. They’re being led by some guy.

He’s wearing a red “Drink Coffee, Do Good” tee shirt under a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans and black TOMS.

Some shoppers continue to check items off their lists, others go outside to ask what’s going on, and others recognize exactly what’s going on and happily join the ranks of people waiting to hear what this guy has to say.

The whole affair seems out of place, even for this busy downtown hot-spot…

but not as out of place as the wee little man running down the street and bumping into everyone.

At the clackety-clack of fancy shoes hitting the pavement, people turn to see a short man, clad in Armani from head to toe, sprinting in their direction. He’s wearing a black suit, with a thin black tie, newly shined black shoes and a red silk pocket square.  The crowd quickly parts and watches, quizzically, anxious to see what exactly is going on.

“Zach! Zach, what are you DOING?” A much taller man, dressed identically to the other one yells from the front of Zach’s’ office building.

“ Leave me alone, Justin, I have to see him!”

Zach runs until his little legs can’t carry him any further. Running in Italian leather is harder than it looks. He stops in front of an old Astro minivan from 1995. It used to maroon, but the paint is peeling in places and the rest of the minivan is just covered with dirt. On each rusted wheel is a donut instead of real tires.

Someone has even written “WASH ME” into the dust on the back window.  A woman is driving, with three little kids in the back seat. The entire image is revolting to Zach.


Ugh, disgusting.
I have to see him.

In a moment of utter desperation and sheer lunacy, Zach climbs up to the top of the minivan! His suit is now covered with dust and paint chips and everyone is looking at him.

Finally. He sighs, heavily; embarrassed by the strong likelihood that his new client just saw him barrel down the street and climb a CAR , and hopeful that, today, Zach will see HIM. No, hopeful against all hope, that HE will see Zach.

That awkward moment when everything falls apart.

After a few moments that feel like hours, Jesus stops in front of the minivan. Without missing a beat, he looks up and says “Zach, man, get down off that minivan, you’re scaring the kids Plus,  I’m crashing at your house, today, bro.”

Zach  jumps off the van, awkwardly dodging the looks he’s getting from the owner of the van and her children.  “Awesome! C’mon Jesus, my car’s over there!” Zach fists pumps the air, ala The Breakfast Club, and leads Jesus in the direction of Zach’s office building.

The crowd is not happy. “I stood in line all day to hear what Jesus had to say.” “He’s about to go to lunch with the worst person EVER.” “Whatever, Jesus. I’m outta here.”

Some leave, the rest of the angry mob follows behind Jesus and Zach waiting to see Jesus school this guy.

“Nice car, bro” Jesus says.

Zach, sensing the tension and the less-than-happy thoughts from the crowd, decides to turn another car into a platform. He stands on the roof of a 1999 Honda Civic in the office parking garage and addresses Jesus and the crowd.

“Jesus, I’ve always wanted to start over. Maybe today’s the day you can help me turn my life around. Tell you what, even  TODAY, I will go straight back to the office and calculate up how much I owe everybody. However much I’ve overcharged anyone for services, I will pay them back four times as much.

Oh! And I wanna give away half of everything I have to the poor. True story.”

In the director’s cut of this scene, the camera lingers on Jesus’ face.  Earlier today, Jesus healed a blind guy. He’s had more pastoral conversations than he can count on both hands and feet, and now this rich guy wants to turn his life around and be consumed by something other than money.

Jesus’ eyes twinkle like stars as he watches the love of God and the hope of Christ pulse through Zach’s heart.

“YES!” he thinks to himself “Yes, Zach, you finally get it! I can give you so much more peace and hope than you could ever find in your big fancy mansion; you won’t find the true meaning you’ve been looking for in piles of gold or in trampling on other people. You’ll find it here, with me, and now you KNOW and you get it, and you’re ready for it!

I LIVE for moments like these,” Jesus smiles to himself, “those moments where you can see the change on the inside reflected on the outside – in their eyes, in their smiles, in their words. – I LOVE my job!”

Zach looks over at smiling Jesus. The two lock eyes for a moment, then Zach smiles too.

From behind the camera lens, the director smiles to herself. She knows she’s hit cinematic gold with this scene alone, not to mention the whole movie; she smiles because she knows that here at the intersection of ancient text and present day, Zacchaeus isn’t just a wee little man who climbed a tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

Zacchaeus is every father who works hard to provide for his family, only to have it not be enough, every time;

Zacchaeus is every mother who feels guilty for wanting just a tiny bit of alone time away from the kids;

Zacchaeus is every preacher seeking to speak a word of comfort in the midst of national tragedy;

Zacchaeus is every person who has ever longed to look into the face of Jesus, and  find hope.

For, in Jesus, a blind man is healed and a rich man finds his way into the kingdom of God.

In Jesus, an anxious seminary student learns to trust a God who is bigger than anxiety and circumstance.

In Jesus, preachers find inspiration for their ministries, the church finds her purpose, and the world knows God’s seeking love.

In Jesus, there is hope.

This hope in Jesus strengthens the hands with which we cling to promises of blessing in seasons of drought.

This hope in Jesus is a joy that brings us through the hardest times, and makes the best times sweeter and well-celebrated.

This hope in Jesus is a story of love, that began ages ago, has continued through Christian history and will continue on through us, and the legacies that we leave.

Friends, we are sustained by a hope in Jesus that defies anything we could find on our own to fill us. Let’s remember this, with joy and gratitude.

Let’s also remember, with urgency, that we have a responsibility – not to hold on to this hope for ourselves, but to share it

with our families
with our churches
with our communities
with the world.

Let’s use our circumstances to join God in what God is doing around us.

Let’s use our lives to paint stories of hope so that those around us see that we’re different and ask us why.

Let’s use our stories to give hope a voice.

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