Unconditionally, Always (Luke 19:1-10)

This is my first sermon as associate pastor at Living Table UCC in Minneapolis. I preached on the text from Luke 19:1-10 about Jesus meeting Zacchaeus (forgive all the misspelling of his name throughout the sermon) I also used a beautiful poem, linked below, by Maren Tirabassi, called “On reading the gospel of John in autumn”

The Word:

Poetry text: On reading the gospel of John in autumn poem

Gospel text: Luke 19:1-10

The Message:

This time of year marks changes in our seasons. Time to change the clocks back an hour, which I hope you did or it automatically did, otherwise you were here an hour early for church!


The winter wind is picking up. Leaves are falling down. We celebrated Halloween last week, Day of the Dead, All Saint’s Day, and now today—Sunday—gathering as a community.


This is also a time in the world of mental health where seasonal effective disorder surface and can make our bodies feel heavy and the days seem long and the nights seem longer with the shorter daylight hours.


Maren’s poem that was read about the leaves falling down speaks to me as we see our trees get barer and barer. It reminds me of the changes we bear in life. 

It also speaks to my heart as we remember those who have gone before us. She says, “and there were saints to remember, and all souls, saintly and not so saintly.” 


This change of year also gives us a space to remember those who have gone before us.


People we love who have died. 


Maybe you have lost loved ones this year. I know our church community has witnessed the deaths of people that were very loved. Maybe you are continuing to grieve people you have months ago or years ago.


Grief is a funny thing. 


I often tell my patients at the hospital where I worked as a chaplain that grief is like a fist. We don’t get over the person we love, but we continue to build our life around it, creating a new normal, a new way of moving forward.


We experience grief in a multitude of ways: Changing jobs—grieving starting a new career or position, grieving retirement even when we are really happy to retire; changes in our relationships, letting go or moving forward, changes within our own health—grieving what we wanted and what we must do keep going on.


We grieve for the things we wanted; the way we had hoped life would go.

And it’s a rotten feeling sometimes to sit in that grief. I want to honor all the feelings that come with grief. They are so real. 


I believe that in order to have the human experience, we have to allow ourselves to feel those feelings. The world wants us to get right back up after we fall down, but faith invites us to pause. 


Faith invites us to say, “this hurts.” It acknowledges the pain. 


Our church community acknowledges our pain when we pray out loud for the things that are hurting inside of us, and the people that we miss. 


God also acknowledges our pain when we grieve.


We grieve together. Even when we are grieving alone, we are not alone.

I need to be honest—In my 20s, I didn’t want to be a minister. I didn’t find it to be very cool. It’s strange to reflect on. I love my work now, at 34 years old. This calling has taken me many places and allowed me to hear many people’s stories.


But in my early 20s, I didn’t think it would be very cool.


In my 20s, I wanted to get married to my military boyfriend. I wanted to be a magazine editor. But God kept showing up in my life—and I kept writing about it.


Little things at first, a poem here, an editorial piece there. Eventually, the magazine editor piece of my life didn’t work out. Neither did the boyfriend. But I kept having these experiencing of inclusive, embracing community at church. And I started to wonder what ministry would look like. I found that ministry incorporated many of my passions. 


My passion for ministering to people as a chaplain turned into my passion for ministering with a church community. It’s still messy. The type A part of me wishes I could be in control of how things work out, but the mystery of faith reminds me that the Spirit guides us how the spirit guides us.


And while I love my work—believe me—I love what I do—I still grieve for that 23 year old inside of me who so desperately wanted a family. I still pray for God to show me what a family can look like at age 34. And God delivers. It may not look like how I thought it would look at 23, but my nieces and nephews are a huge part of my life. I have my biological family as well as my chosen family, a gay man I met in seminary who was told he could never go home again, so I brought him to my home and we called him family. Our little joke is that he’s my brother from another mother (and father). He means so much to me. Foster care and adoption are also on my heart. God has shown me that there are many ways to be family. It may not look like how I pictured it at 23, but it’s still wonderful.


Is that true for you in your life? Did the life you planned and dream of when you were younger work out, or did it just work out in different ways? And our younger years are not the only time for change. Many people find their lives changing in their 40s, their 50s, and well beyond.


Even when change is welcomed, feelings are complex. We can feel joy AND sadness. We can feel excitement AND nervousness. Grief can still be present.

Are there parts of your lives that you still need to grieve?


I visited Mother of God monastery many times when I was living in South Dakota. I attended a seminar on “healing the inner child,” and it really changed the way I view healing. The instructor shared that we all have an inner child within us and we need to tend to that child from time to time, to tell them that things are okay. 


I wonder if there are parts of our childhood or parts of our past that we still need to grieve. 


What things do you need to tell your former self? 


If you could go back in time, what things do you need to tell your former self as a teenager? As a young adult?


Maybe you need to tell them that you survived. 


Maybe you need to tell them that against all odds, you are still here. You are loved, and you are needed in the world. 


You are so needed in this world. Yes, you are.


As we imagine these things, I want us to also imagine God with us throughout those years. 


God sitting with us when we’re feeling entirely overwhelmed and unsure of our next steps. God sitting with us in our moments of deep sadness.


God meets us in the vulnerable moments of our lives and sits with us in our grief. 


We aren’t alone now and we weren’t alone then.


That’s powerful to think about. 


God being with us throughout time. Being with us throughout the ages. 

Our gospel text for today is about Zacchaeus. When I read the text, I wasn’t going to preach on it at first. Last Tuesday, I already had a fine sermon written and it was settled. But then I kept going back to the Zaccheausstory and wondering if there was more there. 


Jesus is traveling through Jericho. Zacchaeus moves quickly ahead of the crowd so he can see him. 


We know Zacchaeus was a tax collector and was counted as one of the city’s most corrupt people. He was also short in stature and that’s why he went early to where Jesus was going to be so he could get the best seat in the house: a tall Sycamore tree. And then the story gets anti-climaxtic from there.


Instead of a big scene happening, Jesus casually walks by, calls Zacchaeus by name, and lets him know he’ll be visiting. No big show here, just a casual “I’ll be stopping by later today.”  And then he does.


I sometimes imagine Jesus and Zacchaeus sitting at the kitchen table. 

Two men on two very opposite spectrum, chatting over coffee. At his house, Jesus confronts Zaccheaus and Zaccheaus can no longer hide from his ways. He has a change of heart and vows to leave behind his life of corruptness and right his wrongs. 


What I gather from this story today, right now, is that there really is no good time to have change happen in our lives.


Zaccheaus was not expecting Jesus to call him by name nor to sit with him at his home. That morning when he woke up, he was not expecting the changes that would occur. 


There really is no good time for change in our lives, wanted or unwanted.


There really is no good time to grieve.


There really is no good time to lose someone or something we love.


The Spirit still meets us in those moments, calls to us like a friend, unconditionally, always, and sits with us.


This church community does the same thing. When one of us is grieving, we all are grieving. 


People send cards. People check in. People even stop over at other’s houses for a cup of coffee.


This is what it means to be a church community.


And as we draw on strength from one another, I want us to take a moment and remember the strength we draw from those in our past. People in our lives that we have loved and lost. People whose memories still inspire us and push us forward. 


I want you to think of one person in your life that you miss who still inspires you. (Pause)


Are you thinking of them? Know they are with you. 


On this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve, and Day of the Dead—let us remember that we are surrounded by a multitude of love on both sides of heaven and earth. 


We are so loved, unconditionally and always. Let us continue to bring that love out into our world today. And with a deep breath in (pause) and out, let the church say Amen. 

Amen ❤️

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