God seeks us out, welcomes us, finds us, and shares a meal of grace with us, when no one else would, and all we can do is live overwhelmed by that abundant love. Such love changes us, shapes us, and helps us let go of what controls us and hinders abundant life.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 31, year C; texts: Luke 19:1-10; Isaiah 1:10-18
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When someone has told you that you are unacceptable and then you find acceptance, nothing is ever the same.
When someone has told you that you are different and therefore not welcome, and you find a place where your difference is embraced and you are welcomed, nothing is ever the same.
When someone has told you that your sins are such a problem that you have to suffer in them and then another person shows you God’s forgiveness and love for you, nothing is ever the same.
When someone has told you that God is anger and judgment, that “God is not mocked” means that you shouldn’t fool yourself into hoping for benevolence from God because you’re not worthy of it, that God is primarily concerned with how bad you are, and then someone brings you into a place where you meet the Triune God and are astonished to find love, and welcome, and grace; to find healing and Spirit-given holiness; to find that you are precious in the eyes of God and to actually meet this loving God in worship, nothing is ever the same.
This we know to be true here. This we live here.
I am convinced that the hospitality and welcome this community offers others of all kinds is directly tied to the sense that in this place that welcome has been extended to everyone who is here, and that changed us and changes us.
I am convinced that our love of being in this room regularly and worshipping God with all our senses, our love of this liturgical life we have here is directly tied to the sense that in this place the Triune God comes to us with blessing and life, that this is holy ground, that here we are met by the God whom Christ has made known to us in death and resurrection and are regularly given life in the midst of our deaths, and that changed us and changes us.
I am convinced that our commitment and desire to make a difference in this world, to challenge ourselves to deepen our presence in this neighborhood and city, and in all our neighborhoods, is directly tied to our sense that in this place we have found the healing grace of God and are overwhelmed by our hope to see that grace abound elsewhere, and to be a part of that, and that changed us and changes us.
It is not hard for us to understand Zacchaeus, then.
Much of his pain is covered up by his wealth, his lifestyle. But what rich man, secure in his choices, lets himself be vulnerable enough to chase down the street after an itinerant preacher and healer, and even hike himself up into a tree to see? This is not a man content. This is a man searching.
Does it matter that people hate him for what they consider good reasons? Sure, he’s a collaborator with the oppressive occupation forces, taking their taxes from his fellow people, his own Jewish sisters and brothers. Sure, he’s very likely the same as most tax collectors in that day, adding his own hidden surcharge on top of everyone’s tax bill, so he can profit, and have a nice house, nice clothes. But does he deserve to be hated by all?
We can’t deny the truth of his public shame. They grumble of Jesus, “He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” His sinfulness is so public, so reviled, that he gets the title “sinner,” as if the rest aren’t worthy of such a name. As if they “sin,” but he’s categorically “a sinner.”
So we understand his reaction to Jesus’ inviting himself over. To be welcomed by this one that everyone wants to meet, everyone wants to see, everyone is interested in, this is unexpected, especially by one who is hated by all his neighbors, accustomed to being a pariah in spite of his wealth.
Maybe part of Zacchaeus is just inwardly the thought that this is a feather in his cap, he scored a dinner with the famous rabbi.
But his reaction – and we notice it’s not clear if the dinner has happened yet or not – his reaction seems like there’s something else happening to him, his reaction is something we understand. He explodes with a response of joy.
He doesn’t just promise to stop cheating. Instead, he goes further and promises to return four times what he’s cheated from people.
He doesn’t just promise to stop profiting from others’ misery. Instead, he goes further and promises to give away half of what he has.
He receives such grace and welcome from Jesus he bankrupts himself out of joy and thanks.
That kind of joy at God’s grace we can understand.
What we might not fully grasp is his own analysis of the connection between his wealth and his entrapment.
Isaiah speaks to people who do all that God commands with regard to worship, but that’s an end of it. And that’s not our experience.
Shockingly, God rejects all their actions of worship, every one of which is commanded of them. Coming to the Temple, doing sacrifice, celebrating the yearly festivals, burning incense, all were required, and of all of these God says, “I am sick to my stomach with them.”
Instead, the people are told to “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The worship of the Lord God of Israel, says the Lord, is intimately tied to the actions of the people for justice.
Our experience of welcome, grace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, our very meeting the Triune God in worship has led us to commitment and passion; unlike Isaiah’s people, we do desire to “learn good,” and to seek justice. We may not always be good at it, but we are committed to deepening, and growing. I hear this from people here all the time, I know it is true.
However, Zacchaeus shows us a disconnect that we sometimes don’t understand as true in our lives. Zacchaeus experiences the welcome and love of Jesus. What connects in his mind is that his wealth is going to be in the way of his living in that welcome and love as he wants.
And his reaction to Jesus is pretty revealing. Of all the ways Zacchaeus could respond in joy and gratitude, what he did was free himself from the enslavement of wealth, from what got him all he had.
He recognized that his privileged status, his comforts, his luxuries, were obtained on the backs of others, at the expense of his neighbors. He recognized that his sinfulness was directly tied to his love of money, to its hold on him. There was only one option open to him once he understood that.
What would happen if we learned that to be true for us? It certainly is true that our privilege and wealth has come to us on the backs of others, here and around the world. We don’t have to have been cheaters like Zacchaeus for that to be true. Is it also true, then, that similarly our wealth enslaves us, traps us, keeps us from being free?
When you have been rejected, cast out, and you find welcome, everything changes. You cannot help but welcome, even if it’s costly to offer it sometimes. I have said to others outside this congregation on several occasions that if you really want to rile up the people of Mount Olive, hint that you might be excluding someone. That will surely raise up an outcry.
Can Zacchaeus help us see with a similar passion that the freedom we find in Christ, this grace, this hope, is inhibited, blocked, even undermined by our clinging to our wealth? There are many congregations who don’t find their way to be gracious and loving even though they have received grace and love. That doesn’t seem to be our problem.
But Zacchaeus troubles me, and I wonder if he troubles you. He keeps riling up inside me feelings of discomfort and even guilt at how well off I am. He couldn’t see a way to embrace Jesus’ embrace while holding on to the riches he had. He makes me wonder about me, about us.
He asks me, and perhaps you, these questions:
What if you learned your sense of welcome by God came at the expense of someone else’s rejection? Could you live happy with that?
What if you believed that having grace and forgiveness from God was a limited resource, and you were going to cling to that as much as possible and not let go of it for others? Would that seem right to you?
So Zacchaeus says by his actions, if your wealth is at the expense of others, and it isn’t truly yours in the first place, and it is abundantly given, is it fine for you not to respond to God’s love and welcome and grace by letting go of it? Is it possible that you are not free because you are clinging so tightly, that it is leading you into sin?
Our understanding of stewardship is skewed because we’ve sequestered our wealth and life-style from everything in which we rejoice about God’s grace and love.
It’s that simple. We’re generous when we perceive a need. That’s a good thing, and better than some I suppose. Lots of charities are grateful for such generosity.
But Zacchaeus wasn’t perceiving a need in others he needed to address with his ill-gotten wealth. He was perceiving a need in himself that he needed to address by divesting himself of it.
When we understand that for ourselves, we will be on the path to being faithful stewards. It is that sense of letting go, of recognizing that as much as being inhospitable and excluding is not in keeping with the grace we know, clinging to our own possessions as if they belong to us and as if they don’t in some ways control and own us is also not in keeping with the freedom we have come to know in Christ.
We look at Zacchaeus and see what it looks like when our whole lives are captive to God’s love and grace, everything, not just part.
This week we will receive invitations for us to pledge to each other and to God our promises for 2014, invitations for each of us to find a Zacchaeus revelation.
I have no urgings, no pleas to make. Only prayers. A prayer that each one of us, so deeply filled with the knowledge of living in God’s amazing love, might know without any second of fear that God loves us, loves you. A prayer that we each find that freedom Zacchaeus found, that we can be so free that we can promise to each other from this point forward a transformative use of the wealth we have, wealth that we know is not ours.
When the good news that God has loved us, and still loves us, reaches our hearts and lives, things change, we change. We know this. Zacchaeus simply raises to each of us this possibility that there is more change that would give life, more letting go that would be freeing. He raises the possibility that we might really know what life in Christ is if our response of joy and gratitude to God’s astounding grace in our lives involved breaking our hold on this idol, this master over our hearts.
When God answers these prayers, then we will hear the words of Jesus once again, and know it to be true perhaps more deeply than we ever have before: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Today.
In the name of Jesus. Amen