(a sermon for October 30, 2016, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 19:1-10)
Last week, you’ll remember I began the message with a song that, for me at least, summarized the spirit of the Gospel reading for the day. Well, today I have another such song, one I suspect you might remember from days gone by; and if so, this is one I hope you’ll sing along with me now:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he! He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree. And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down from there! For I’m coming to your house today! I’m coming to your house today!’”
Good job… sounds like you all paid attention in Sunday School! However, good as that was, I have to tell you that once again we have an example of how the song tells only a small part of the story! For rather than this simply being the warm and fuzzy tale of a cute little fellow hanging out with the birds up in the sycamore tree so that he might get a closer look at Jesus, what we have in our text this morning is an example of what happens when the awareness of God’s presence, his power and his love, is so intense, so enveloping and so utterly transformative that the one who has felt it will literally stop at nothing in order to experience it some more! The story of Zacchaeus, you see, is a reminder to us that the experience of faith ought to make us… bold!
To begin with, however, let’s be clear: Zacchaeus was not exactly on anyone’s top-ten list of “most admired” citizens in the city of Jericho; for not only did he serve as a tax-collector for the Romans in that district, he was the chief tax-collector. And that meant that not only did Zacchaeus pretty much work as an extortionist for the occupying forces, he also made more than a very healthy living in doing so! So he was among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Jericho; but he was also one the most despised; and, given his lack of stature, also fairly well ridiculed. Basically, Zacchaeus was in the very apt words of Frederick Buechner, “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job;” which is pretty interesting for a man whose name, in the original Greek, translates as meaning “pure!”
But as we pick up the story this morning in Luke’s gospel, clearly something has happened with Zacchaeus. We’re not told exactly what; maybe he’d woke up that morning suddenly realizing that his whole life had become a contradiction, and that all the money and power he’d gained meant nothing if it also meant being so despised by everyone around him. Perhaps he’d simply had enough of the way he was living his life; and now he was aching for something different; something better, something more. Or maybe it was that Zacchaeus had already found that something, and now everything about his life and living was shifting because of it! Whatever was going on, what we can surmise is that it had everything to do with this man Jesus: this prophet, teacher, healer that everyone in Jericho was talking about; and who, as it happened was to be passing through that very day!
And so Zacchaeus is now compelled and utterly determined to see Jesus. You’ll notice that it’s not that he wants to speak to Jesus, nor is it to in some way or another “touch the hem of his garment” and it’s certainly not an orchestrated effort designed to offer Jesus an invitation to dinner; he simply wants to see Jesus. It’s as though for Zacchaeus, just watching Jesus go by would be enough to validate everything that was going on inside of him. The only difficulty, of course, was that he was “a wee little man,” and as such there was no way he was ever going be able to see over the heads of this crowd! But where there’s a will, there’s a way; and in a bold and decisive move that’s also one of the great comic moments of the Gospels, up the Sycamore climbs Zacchaeus, which does provide him a better view but also, no doubt, left him looking like some demented monkey in front of every “hater” in the city of Jericho! But here’s the thing; Zacchaeus could not have cared less about this, so intent he was to see Jesus, so focused he was on finding whatever it was Jesus might have to offer him.
And his boldness pays off: Jesus does come by, and the moment he spies Zacchaeus up in the tree Jesus calls out to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And now, Zacchaeus is scrambling down from the tree – I’m guessing that he actually fell out of the tree, probably out of pure astonishment (!) – deliriously happy to oblige Jesus’s request for lodging, but no doubt overwhelmed at the prospect!
Of course, as Luke tells the story, there were many amongst the crowd of onlookers who were very offended by all of this; and in all honesty, you can understand why. After all, why would someone like Jesus ever deem it appropriate or in any way righteous to “be the guest of one who is a sinner,” not to mention an individual well-known as the equivalent of a local mobster and one, it should be noted, just kind of went a little bit crazy hanging up there on the drooping sycamore branches! But here’s where the story gets even more interesting: Zacchaeus, as if to defend himself in the face of these naysayers, turns to Jesus and says, “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.”
On the face of it, it clearly sounds here like Zacchaeus has repented of his sin and intends to make amends, and that’s frankly how we usually read this passage of scripture; but here’s the piece that’s interesting: Biblical scholars are now suggesting that we may have gotten the translation from the Greek slightly wrong here! Turns out that verb tense is not “future” but “future present,” and that what Zacchaeus says to Jesus is not that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, but that he gives half of his possessions to the poor! In other words, Zacchaeus here is not making a promise for what’s he’s going to do in response to Jesus; he’s referring to what he’s already doing, boldly for the sake of this incredible new faith that has enveloped him, and the life that flows from it!
Like I said before, something happened to Zacchaeus – faith, you see, is an experience first, and doctrine, a belief, second – Zacchaeus had an experience, and from that moment on, to coin a phrase from another source (!), he boldly went where he’d never gone before! And to this, Jesus looks again at Zacchaeus, this wealthy chief tax collector despised by his neighbors, and says to the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
There’s a lot going on in this little story: it’s a reminder that Jesus will always seek out and show love and acceptance to those who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the fringes (or, in this case, the outer branches!) of life. It also tells us that with Jesus, it’s not wealth that matters as much as what one does with that wealth; as we said last Sunday in regards to the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s about attitude and care and generosity. But most especially, I think, this familiar story of Zacchaeus and Jesus sets for a prime example of how the experience of faith ought to move us forward in life and living; how a relationship with this infinitely loving and present Lord should inspire boldness in everything that we do.
For indeed, the kind of boldness that arises out of faith has a way of creating change; in the world, yes, but most of all in ourselves.
I love what the Rev. Bill Wilson, a Baptist pastor who is the head of the Center for Congregational Health in North Carolina, has written about this story; he says that one of the most dangerous things that Jesus does to us is change the way that we see the world. “Salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ house,” Wilson writes, “and he is forever changed from a taker to a giver. This man had made his living taking from others, and suddenly, after one meal with Jesus, he is giving money away like he’s the United Way of Jericho. [Likewise], when Christ takes up residence in a life, we become generous . Somehow he loosens our grip on our wallet, our pocket book, our credit card. Giving becomes an opportunity, not just a requirement. I would even suggest,” Wilson concludes, “that no person has had an authentic encounter with the living Christ unless a generous heart is the result.”
All through these weeks that we’ve been focused on stewardship here at East Church, we’ve spoken largely about the need for generosity and how that flows out of a loving and joyful response to the all the many blessings God has bestowed upon us as people and as a church. That’s been part and parcel of our stewardship theme this year: that God has done remarkable things in our lives; now you go and do the same! And on this Stewardship Sunday I continue to hope and pray that you will, for the sake of our shared ministries in the coming year; but having said that, it would seem to me that for all these visions we dream of to come to pass, and for us to really become “good stewards” of what we’ve been given, first it takes boldness on each of our parts; the boldness that arises from the experience of a true faith in God.
It is boldness, you see, makes us who we are as the church. It’s boldness that will take us out of our comfort zone and lead us to reach out in compassion to a friend – or even a stranger – in need. It’s boldness that’s required for us, especially in these days of divisive rhetoric, to speak openly and courageously of things like true justice and a whole peace and an ethically moral life. Truly, it’s bold for any of us these days to be wholly and authentically and unapologetically Christian in a way that is wholly steeped in hospitality and love; and, might I add, in a way that is not dismissive of others. And it is bold for us to be the church in a hurting world and amongst hurting people; bold for you and me to bring forth, in a hundred different ways – from worship and singing and Sunday School to Holiday Fairs and Saturday night Ham and Bean Suppers – the kind of gentle healing, warm fellowship and spiritual nurturing that only comes through the graceful love of God in Jesus Christ.
When here at East Church we’re that kind of bold… well, then, the generosity of time, talent and treasure just naturally follows! I know it does, too, because I’ve seen it happen… and the question I’ll leave you with today is how that will continue into 2017 and beyond.
It’s said that the story of Zacchaeus starts with a little man in a tree, but it ends with the biggest heart Jesus encounters in all of Israel. And therein is the challenge for each one of us, beloved, not only on a Stewardship Sunday, but especially on each and every day that we set out from this place seeking in the week ahead to “go and do the same.” We are called, you and I, to take our own experience of the Savior and transform it into something wonderful and life-changing; we are charged to be the proclaimers of the gospel in this time and place; we are meant to be tireless workers of the kingdom and the carriers of its great legacy to our children and grandchildren. We are supposed to be the shiners of light illuminating and unending, right now and right here from this very vantage point!
As they like to say it in the Midwest, “that’s a lot that needs done!” So what are we waiting for? Now is the time! So go… and be bold! Be bold for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
And thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry