New Hope Fellowship
November 3, 2019
I hope you a good Halloween. We had a great night. We brought the TV out on the front porch so I could have the Baylor football game on, and we sat out there and watched the game and gave out candy.
The celebration of Halloween dates back to a time before the birth of Christianity. It was celebrated by the Celtic people, marking the beginning of the Celtic new year.
They believed that it was at this time that the souls of the people who died during the previous year traveled into the new world. So, with the belief in these wandering souls came the custom of
preparing offerings of special foods and
dressing up as these spirits.
Starting to sound familiar?
When Christian missionaries came into contact with the Celtic people in about the 6th or 7th centuries, they encountered these celebrations. Instead of trying to wipe out the native people’s customs and culture, Christian missionaries tried to use them to honor Christ.
The Church established All Saints Day or All Hallows Day on November 1 as a time to honor the saints of the church and then, trying to recapture the spirit of the original celebration, it created All Souls Day on November 2 to recognize those who had died the previous year. So, October 31 is All Hallows Eve—Halloween.
So, like all American holidays, including Christmas, Halloween is a mix of sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian traditions. When I was the pastor at Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, we had a big Halloween Carnival every year. A lot of churches have Harvest Festivals; some even have Hallelujah Festivals.
We had a Halloween Carnival. That was intentional, you know, not an accident, not an oversight. Second Baptist has a history of not withdrawing from the world but of entering into the world and trying to be the presence of Christ there.
Christian missionaries have always tried to “baptize” local customs with Christian meaning. And in the same way, today we
enter into the customs of the place where we live
when it comes to Halloween and
try to embody the gospel there in that place as best
Like those missionaries to the Celtic people a long time ago, we live in this world and use the things of this world to honor Christ.
The other thing we did in at Second Baptist was have a Pumpkin Patch. We started doing that a year or two after I got there in 2003, and it has turned into a huge thing that they are still doing today. We had a great piece of property on a main street with a large grassy area with huge trees near the road.
They would bring an 18-wheeler and unload thousands of pumpkins, and we would arrange them all around the area on pallets in big stacks so you could walk through under the trees. And we’d set up hay bales and areas for pictures. Preschool groups would come and people would come buy their pumpkins.
The Pumpkin Patch has been highly successful, not just in the money it has made but also in the opportunity it gave us
to make connections with each other as various
people have worked the Patch together and
to make connections with our neighbors in the
I spent a lot of time out there in the Patch talking to people. And it was interesting to watch the process people go through to select their pumpkin. Most children run around grabbing this one or that without a lot of thought. Some adults, in the same way,
walk right up,
grab a pumpkin,
pay their money, and
Others spend long periods of time carefully inspecting the selection so they choose just the right one.
Some pick big ones, some small ones.
Some like the rare white ones, others like the one with a perfect orange color.
Some choose perfectly smooth pumpkins, and others like the ones with warts all over them.
You should have seen my friend Jonathon Reeves choose his pumpkin. On the first or second day the pumpkins were for sale, he was there carefully inspecting each one. He finally found what he thought was and claimed to be the finest pumpkin in the Patch. It was perfectly round. Just the right color—orange with maybe a tinge of yellow. A nice stem. It was just the right size.
Jonathon brought his perfect pumpkin home and stored either in the garage or in the backyard on a pallet (so it wouldn’t rot). And he planned to only put the pumpkin on display at the front of his house on Halloween day so that there would be no risk of anyone taking or damaging his perfect pumpkin. So I guess on Halloween that year you could’ve driven by the Reeves’ house and seen Jonathon’s perfect pumpkin on display in a Plexiglas case in front of his house.
Everybody had their own pumpkin selection style and criteria.
I wonder how Jesus would have picked his pumpkin. I have a feeling he wouldn’t use the standard criteria for how to pick a perfect pumpkin. All you have to do is think about how Jesus picked people. I have a feeling Jesus would have been happy with the leftover pumpkins—the ones nobody else wanted.
Think about Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was the shortest pumpkin in town– and also the richest. He was a tax collector. You know about tax collectors in Jesus’ time. hey were the
most unpopular people,
the biggest outcasts
you could find– except maybe the lepers.
Remember the Jewish people were ruled by the Romans. They didn’t appreciate that at all. It’s good for us to remember that Jews and then the early Christians were never in power with the Emperor. That came later with disastrous consequences for everyone.
Roman officials would contract with local entrepreneurs to collect the
in a certain area.
These chief tax collectors had to pay their contract in advance. So the Romans actually got their money from the chief tax collector. Then, he would hire people to go out and collect the taxes from the people, hoping that when it was all collected he’d have a profit.
Needless to say, it was a system open to abuse. The more a tax collector could collect, the bigger his profit. So the tax collector was seen as a cheater and a traitor, because he worked for the Romans and because the system itself encouraged cheating.
Zacchaeus, chief tax-collector, heard Jesus was going to be passing through Jericho, so he climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of people’s heads.
I guess they lined up along that dusty road like it was some kind of parade.
No Shriners on their little scooters.
No floats with people waving.
No marching bands.
Just an average looking guy named Jesus walking along with some rough looking characters: a couple of fisherman and a few others.
Some people thought he was the Messiah.
A bunch of them were hoping to get healed.
Some were just curious.
I don’t know why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly. But the richest man in town– he climbs up in tree like a kid. When Jesus got about to where Zacchaeus was, he went over to him, and he stopped.
He said, “Zacchaeus, come on down. I’m coming over to your house.”
You can just imagine the whispers.
“Look at that. I can’t believe it. Did you see that? Jesus is going to be a dinner guest of Zacchaeus.”
“No, the short one– the tax collector.”
“I can’t believe he’s going over to Zacchaeus’s
house. . . .”
And pretty soon everybody was talking about it.
Not only was Jesus socializing with a tax collector, but he was going to eat with him. Now, for us, that may not seem like too big of a deal. But for the Jews– it was a very big deal.
You didn’t eat with just anybody. To eat with someone meant you were forming some sort of a bond with the person. If you had someone in your home and broke bread with them, you were saying that you would
stand up for that person and
defend that person
no matter what. You didn’t just share a meal in someone’s home lightly if you were a Jew.
This whole thing of whom you ate with and what you ate was a big deal.
Knowing all that, Jesus walked up to Zacchaeus, holding on for dear life up in that tree, and he said, “Come on down. I’m coming over for dinner.”
And all Jericho snickered and whispered. To think that Jesus would invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot-pole.
But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zacchaeus was so completely stunned and excited by the honor of the whole thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor.
And not only that, but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d ever extorted from everybody else. And Jesus was just delighted. “Today, salvation has come to this house,” he said.
And since salvation was his specialty after all, you’d assume he was right.
[Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who]
We need to be clear. Zacchaeus wasn’t saved because he gave half his money away. He was saved because he accepted Jesus’ invitation. His giving his money away was a result of salvation coming to his house.
We don’t get a relationship with God as a reward for having everything together. Things come together because we are in a relationship with God.
We aren’t picked out of the pumpkin patch by God because we are the perfect pumpkin. God picks us, plain as we are, and makes us special.
You were not chosen because you are special. You are special because you were chosen.
I know this. Zacchaeus had nothing to offer. He was the lowest—and I don’t mean just his height. He was really the lowest.
The chief tax collector.
The chief crook.
The chief traitor.
The chief sinner in the eyes of the Jews.
plucked him out of the pumpkin patch,
washed him off,
cleaned out the yucky stuff, and
lit a fire inside him for all to see.
I had some trouble deciding how this sermon should end today. And over the years in preaching I have learned that when I get stuck at the end of a sermon, it often has to do with not being able to decide which one of the characters in this story we should identify with. In this case, Jesus or Zacchaeus.
When you read a story in the Gospels about Jesus or a parable that Jesus told, what we take out of it hinges, in large part, on which of the characters we identify with. Most of us naturally identify with the hero of the story.
And I think that’s what I was trying to do at first when I was deciding how this sermon was going to end. I was identifying with Jesus. And I was trying to end the sermon with a call for us to be like Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to get out there in the pumpkin patch in the dirt and the muck and get a pumpkin. Jesus didn’t just wait for the pumpkins to get
before he’d accept one. And we need to be like Jesus and get out there and reach out to all kinds of people. This is true. But that’s not how this sermon needs to end today.
What was hanging me up, I think, was a sense somewhere deep inside that the person we really need to identify with in this story is not Jesus but Zacchaeus.
Jesus is the one who picks the pumpkins, and you and I are the not-so-perfect pumpkins out in the patch.
Kenny Wood was my oldest brother’s youth minister at First Baptist Church, Richardson, Texas. He is a brilliant guy. Very talented. He’s a great preacher and storyteller and writer. But he has a hard life. He lives somewhere in Fort Worth now, but I’m not sure exactly where.
He got in a car wreck one night years ago. He got in that car wreck because he was drunk. It turns out the car wreck revealed the fact he’d been abusing drugs and alcohol.
He nearly lost an arm in the wreck. It was terrible. Went through drug rehab.
He lost his church.
Nearly lost his family.
Lost it all.
He said that in the middle of this huge, terrible crisis in his life, he was walking through this grocery store. One of those Super HEBs in San Antonio, Texas.
All of a sudden the music over the intercom stopped—that music that you never notice until it stops. The music stopped, and he noticed. He heard a mother’s voice. Obviously the mother had lost a child. And the mother was given the permission of going over the intercom and speaking to her child, because the store management realized that even in that huge store in that huge crowd, a child would know its mother’s voice.
And this was what the mother said:
“Honey, I know you’re lost. And you can’t find mommy. But if you will just stop walking around and sit down right where you are, Mommy will come find you.”
If you’ll just sit down.
You will find that God has already found you right where you are.
Whether you’re up a tree or up a creek.
Wherever you are and whoever you are,
Jesus has come to seek you out and to save you.
In Jericho, Jesus looked up a tree at a man who had climbed up there to see and be seen.
Wonder of wonders, Jesus offered Zacchaeus and he offers us what we all need more than anything else—
a love that will seek us out and never let us go,
a friendship that welcomes us,
a grace that forever changes us.
This is the lesson to be learned from the Pumpkin Patch Gospel: Just sit where you are right in the patch, and you will find that God has already picked you.