Growing up with Zacchaeus


A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, and Luke 19:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

As we all look forward to the ending of a shameful presidential campaign, at some point, we need to begin to think about how we move forward.  As we try to learn from this year and work for a better process in the future, we can perhaps try to learn from negative examples.  If we didn’t realize before, we know now that no media outlet has a hold on the absolute truth. More than ever, one needs to read and listen to a variety of sources to begin to separate facts from “tweet fiction.”  We can notice how much moral energy has gone into the discussion of politics—especially by people who have no strong other moral framework in which to invest their energy.  And a third aspect of this campaign season should remind us just how easy it is to bring someone down—to sow rumor, or plant doubt, or rub someone’s entire being in their worst chapter from the past.  It’s much more difficult to build up.

Our culture almost conditions us to find flaws—in an argument, in a plan or process, and in other people.  As Father Graham reminded us last week, it’s almost second nature to get on the subway and look around and begin to take inventory:  “What was that person thinking when he put on that shirt  Did that woman even look in the mirror before she left home? And so on…”

How much more difficult (but how much might it change everything) if we looked around and found the positive:  “Wow, that person loves to wear colorful things.  How nice that that woman appears to be such a loving mother.  Bless that man who appears to have worked a long, hard day.”

Today’s Gospel is about many things, but one of the most powerful, I think, begins with the love of Jesus, a love that helps a person who feels very small, fell very large.  In so doing, Jesus invites Zacchaeus to be right-sized, to confess and repent from sin, to live with a new humility, and discover a new joy that saves.

Zacchaeus is a tax collector—the most hated and reviled of people because not only was he taking people’s money, but he was working for the Roman occupation.  He was a sell-out, and was actively selling out his own people, and taking a huge profit off the top.  Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector—he was the chief tax collector, so the worst of the worst.

It’s people like Zacchaeus that the words of Isaiah were directed at in a different place and a different age.  Isaiah criticizes the people of Jerusalem by lumping them in with the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, places famous for their inhospitality and hypocrisy.  Isaiah reminds people that God won’t listen to their prayers or accept their offerings when, at the same time, they are ignoring justice, taking advantage of the widow, and adding to the oppressed.  But through Isaiah, God invites the people to confess:  “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”

Returning to the Gospel story about Zacchaeus, the children’s song so many learn in Sunday school tells the story makes it sound like it’s the physical size of Zacchaeus that made him climb up a tree in order to see Jesus.  But I wonder if everything about Zacchaeus wasn’t small—his height, his self-image, and even his heart.

But there’s something that makes him curious about Jesus.  Maybe he’s had it with being part of a corrupt system.  Maybe he’s tired of working against his own people.  Maybe he’s eaten up with guilt at all that he’s stolen.

Jesus probably shocked the crowd that day by inviting Zacchaeus down and insisting on having lunch with him.  It would be like Jesus calling the chairman of Wells Fargo out of a press conference about the phony accounts the bank created in order to cheat people.  The very person everyone wants to hate is singled out for a private lunch with the Lord.

But this is no VIP luncheon.  The Gospel doesn’t go into detail about their conversation.  Maybe Jesus spoke first, but what we have are the surprising words of Zacchaeus.  They are words of repentance and restitution:  “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.

Something about the presence of Jesus, encountering God face to face, helps Zacchaeus grow big-hearted.  It helps him grow up and it helps him grow out.  And he makes changes, he makes amends.  This is different from the South Korean executives we’ve seen recently who bow dramatically before the news cameras, but only resign a portion of their job, and give nothing away in salary or benefits.  Zacchaeus doesn’t sneak out the side door with a huge severance, or float out the window with a golden parachute.  Instead, Zacchaeus not only shows us what it looks like to grow in relationship with Christ.  He also shows us that growth comes partly through repentance—through coming clean with the past, being honest with wrongdoing, and doing one’s best to set things straight.

I don’t know where this story of Zacchaeus finds you.  It might be that you’re feeling kind of small.  Maybe other people have belittled you in some way, or circumstances have made you feel small or insignificant.  This story reminds us that Jesus calls us out of whatever tree or shrub we might be hiding in.  He calls us to come out into the light, into the warmth, into his presence, where we can grow and flourish and mature.

It also might be that as you hear this story of Zacchaeus, something occurs in your mind that you need to get rid of, to confess, to unburden, and to move beyond.  Our prayer of confession is one place to name that before God.  If there’s a burden you’re having trouble getting rid of, the church offers the Sacrament of Confession, and I’m happy to meet with you about that.  But perhaps the faith and repentance of Zacchaeus can encourage us when we’re wrong, to admit it, and do what it takes to put things on the right course again.

Jesus meets Zacchaeus and invites him to lunch, setting the stage for an altar-like table of forgiveness and fellowship.  That’s what we have at this and every altar—an invitation to be made large (in the best sense), to have our hearts expanded, our sins forgiven, and our generosity and commitment to justice enlarged.

Whether we’re coming out a tree, a bad week, a tricky spiritual place, or just a plain, old church pew—may we each hear the loving invitation of Jesus to come and be healed, be loved, and be restored in the image of God.



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