Text: Luke 19:1-10
Given at FPC-Anniston, AL on 11/03/2016
I remember the first time my first son said his first word, “Dada.” From the moment that we are born, we begin a lifelong process of delineating between what we consider us and what we think of as “not us.” This of course is not a wholly unhealthy practice. Babies have to figure out where they stop and the outside world begins. Communities that challenge the status quo and struggle for greater equality freedom are always formed in opposition to something else. From the signing of the Magna Carta, to the Indian struggle against the British Empire to the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the quest for greater dignity is always a struggle against those who seek to deny it and the church should always seek to stand with the “least of these” no matter the guise each group takes on. And perhaps it is especially instructive when we study our shared history whether as a nation or the whole of the human race that in every age and quest for dignity, there have been those whose light shines in the darkness and offers us an example on how to challenge the great seats of power without dehumanizing the other side. Whether in the form of Gandhi in India or King in the United States, there are always those who declare that the burden of hatred is too heavy a weight to bear and instead choose to love those that stand opposed to their efforts. In our own times, we face the challenge of seeing the common humanity in those who see the world in starkly different ways than we ourselves see it. We live in cynical times. This political season, which has seemingly dragged on for an eternity, has served to fuel our own distrust of the systems by which we are governed, have caused contempt to be felt between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and once again divided us as a nation and as a people. But perhaps the greatest damage done to us in this time of red states and blue states, of us and them, is the rise of otherness that has infected our body politic. We have come to see the competing sides of the debate in only the most negative caricatures and stereotypes, until we are left with an ever shrinking group of persons with whom we even associate. And so maybe it is fortuitous that we come to this story of Zaccheus and his efforts to see Jesus in his midst. Because in it Jesus does not perceive the world as we do, variegated between those who are in and those who are out. As we look at this story, if we are blessed with eyes to see, we will recognize that what we see as variegation is simply a tapestry of people who all come together to experience the Christ. We will see that we are each of those people. At some point we will each be the one who is seeking, who is lost, who is struggling. Zacchaeus’ part is difficult to play, it is difficult to encounter, because he is among the most cracked of the broken, he is among the most lamentable of the fallen. At some point, each of us is Jesus, the one who leads others to faith, who leads others to a greater awareness of God, of salvific moments. At times we are the crowd, gathering around the one whom we seek to follow, gathering around him, yet keeping others away, gathering around him, and distorting the view of those who are yearning for just a glimpse, just a hint of hope, of grace. Maybe we are the tree, the vehicle to the one who is lost seeing, maybe for the first time, the Christ in his midst. Maybe we offer people an opportunity to reach out to God in real and life-altering ways. We all have a part in this drama, we all can find something of ourselves in the characters which appear in this passage. We all have a role in the work of God, now let’s find it.
We are told Jesus was coming into the village of Jericho. He was passing through it, and a man named Zacchaeus was there. Now Zacchaeus was a tax collector. The very embodiment of evil, the most despised members of society, the most loathsome class of Jewish citizens. They were considered sellouts to their community as they were a part of the Roman occupation – making lots of money by taking from the Jewish citizens, and after having taken a portion of it for themselves, they turned it over to the occupying force, presumably so they could continue occupying the land. They were thought of as dishonest and unethical business men, who sought only to make as much money as they could regardless of the pain and tragedy they inflicted on those around them. They were overall a hated class of people, and immediately we see the two men contrasted with one another. The one, Jesus. The one we call righteous, blameless, the one we call God incarnate on earth. The one who seeks to set the captives free and bring all of God’s children back to relationship with God, back to awareness of God. And we see Zacchaeus. The despised tax collector, the one who wreaked havoc on the Jewish people, the one who cared only for himself, only for his riches. But we also see that Zacchaeus knew something was wrong, he knew deep down in the deepest part of his soul that something was out of whack. He knew that there was something more authentic to be had, something more real to experience. He knew that the one passing through the town, through his town had something more to offer this dastardly man.
And so, we are told, he tries to get to Jesus, he tries only to get one glimpse of the one we call the Messiah, and he is rebuffed. He is rebuffed by those around him, by those who have been cheated by him and swindled by him, those who have had to pay him everything they had, knowing it would still not be enough, those who sought only to live a normal life. And so, they surrounded Jesus, they surrounded him and would not let this tax collector, this sinner, anywhere near the one who they loved. But Zacchaeus would not be deterred, he would not be prevented from seeing the one he knew could change his life, could offer him something more. His desire to change, his need to find something more authentic was too great. So we are told he ran ahead of Jesus and found a tree that he could climb that would elevate him high above the crowds, those who would not let him near the great teacher.
When Jesus passed this tree, he saw Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the one who had no friend in the world, the one who had been left alone to sleep with his wealth, the one who had been separated from every person he ever encountered, and he felt pity for him. He felt pity for him in a way that perhaps no one ever had. He felt pity for him and he reached his hand out and said, Zacchaeus, come down, tonight I stay with you. This moment, this pivotal moment, this single moment, shines through like a light through the darkness of Zacchaeus’ world, like a ray of hope when before his whole landscape had been filled with doubt, with sadness. “I must stay at your house today.”
Here the story takes on speed, it takes on meaning. Zacchaeus, offered a chance, offered a light, cannot contain himself, as he rushes down the tree, and he was happy. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he was happy. Authenticity, had come to him on this day. Hope had come to him on this day. Love and grace and peace – all came into his life on this day and he was happy. But the crowds are not. “All who saw it, began to grumble.” All who saw it said, “Wait a minute, is this not the tax collector? Is this not the one who is the greatest sinner of all? Is this not the one who has cheated and stole everything he has made? And Jesus, goes to be with him tonight? What of me? I am a good person, I pray and I am honest, I am hardworking, I am good, and yet Jesus goes to be with this one tonight.”
Next, we are told that Zacchaeus is overwhelmed by the moment, overwhelmed by the rays of hope and love that are shining into his dark life, into his dark soul, and he exclaims, half of what I have will go to the poor. And if I have swindled anybody, I will repay it four times over.” The transformation is complete, Zacchaeus now sees, he knows, he gets it. The light of God, the grace of God shines on even him, it reaches out to those who are so far from the light so far from grace they can no longer perceive it, they can no longer see it, and he gets it. And Jesus’ words ring out like a beacon of hope to all who are in earshot, to all who can read, even today, “Salvation has come to this house, because this one too is a child of Abraham. I have come to seek out and save the lost.”
Who are you in that story? Who are you in the one act play that has just unfolded in the recesses of your mind and your soul? Each of us has a part to play, each of us can find ourselves within the story, and the great secret is that at times we play each part, at times we play the part of the sinner with guilt to great to bear, and with pain that no one in the world can ever fully know or understand. And at times we are Jesus, we have the ability, we have the call to go out to all ends of the earth calling out to the lost, calling out to the broken, and offering words of hope and grace, words of friendship and acceptance to all we meet, even the tax collectors. We are the crowds, eager to encounter the spirit of truth that we find in Jesus, eager to experience the love and grace found in the person and character of Jesus. But too often that excitement gets transformed into a struggle to preserve the ownership of Jesus, to preserve the ownership of grace and love. We get to say who comes into this place, we get to demand that they be like us, that they look like us, that they love like us, we get to say who gets to come into the Divine circle of God’s love. And at times we are the tree, becoming a vehicle, a crutch for persons to get to God, to experience God’s love. We have the privilege of sitting with persons who are hurting, persons who are lost, persons who have no hope or light in their soul, and say, “I know, it is scary, I know you are lost, but trust me, I have been here before, and I know the way.”
As we are getting ever so close to the holiday season, in which we will prepare for the Christ child to be born in our midst again and anew, we would do well to remind ourselves that Charles Dickens once sought to retell the Christian story in a more modern day manner. He sought to take the traditional symbols of Christianity, fallenness and death, hope and light, redemption and realization, and turn them into a novel, what would become A Christmas Carol. And we all know the story. Either we were forced to read it in Mrs. Britt’s 9th grade English class, I joke because it has become one of my favorite books, or we have seen Walt Disney’s interpretation of the book. Perhaps if some of us close our eyes we can see and hear Alastair Sim throw open the shutters and exclaim, “What’s today?” to the peasant boy under his house from the 1951 movie version. But it is the Disney version of A Christmas Carol that would provide the best recognized scenes of the excited Scrooge McDuck waking up to Christmas morning and coming to the realization that the cigar smoking Pete the Cat had not actually pushed him into his own grave. And upon breathlessly discovering that he is both still alive but also that it is indeed Christmas day, the day when light came in the world, the day when his life was begun anew. He begins slapstickily running around the room, getting dressed while still wearing his night clothes, stepping through his top hat, sliding down the bannister and getting to the house of Bob Cratchit as quickly as his two feet will carry hime. After a time with the Cratchits we learn through the narrator that he begins to process of repaying all those who has had swindled all those with whom he has been hardhearted, because redemption had come to him, and he could do nothing else, he could express no other emotion but sheer happiness, sheer joy, sheer love.
Now, we all sit on the precipice of this moment, on the edge of discovering a love and an acceptance like none that we have ever experienced in our lives. Perhaps we have had it before, perhaps we have climbed in a tree and found Jesus calling out to us to come down, have found the presence of God, shining even when all hope seemed lost and our guilt and darkness overwhelming. If we have, that is beautiful and hopeful and right, but we cannot sit on it, we cannot hope that others around us will find it on their own. The crowds sought to hold Jesus for themselves, to prevent those they found distasteful or sinful, those who did not look like them, act like them, speak as they spoke and they sought to keep them separated from God. But a true experience of God, authentic awareness of God, pushes us out of this place and into the streets, it moves us to throw open the shutters and declare this the day that they Lord hath made. For the Dickensian character Scrooge, he was propelled to do good for others, those around him in need, those around him somehow stuck in the mire. To joyfully declare, “Merry Christmas! A Happy New Year to all the world!” For Scrooge, the boundaries of wealth and class that had for so long defined his life, fell away. They fell away into the joy of a new day, a brighter day, a happier day. For Zacchaeus, he was moved to make amends with all those who he had cheated, all those who he had swindled. To relieve himself of the burden of moneys made on the illegal, immoral dealings of other, until he could again come to each person as a brother and sister and not as a potential deal.
We all sit on the precipice of this moment, on the edge of discovering a love and an acceptance like none we have ever experienced in our lives. But so is each person. This story tells us that none are outside the boundaries of God’s holy family, none fall outside of God’s grace and acceptance, in no one is redemption impossible. If Jacob Marley could bring Ebeneezer Scrooge into the light, if Jesus could offer Zacchaeus the experience of hope and grace, than God is powerful enough, loving enough, grace-filled enough to reach out to all persons in creation. And Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.