November 13, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalms 139:1-18, Luke 19: 1-10
What a week! Whether your candidate for president won or lost, there was shock on both sides. For many, shock about the outcome of the election. Perhaps for all, shock in the realization of the degree to which are broken as a society. If we hadn’t realized it already, this week we experienced that the country is divided almost exactly in half – torn right down the middle. And, instead of seeing enthusiastic voting for a favored candidate we witnessed passionate and bitter voting against the other. Half of our country is demoralized and afraid. And if the outcome of this election had been different, the other half of our country would be angry and disgusted. These are indeed difficult times. But, as always, the Word of God can give us comfort and direction.
Today’s Gospel capsulizes for us what the mission of Jesus was all about, and in turn what the mission of the church and our mission as followers of Jesus is all about. The event happened while Jesus was passing through Jericho, the city of palms. Luke writes, “And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.” In this one sentence we are told the story of a human life.
Nothing in first century Judea was quite so hated and despised as was the Roman tax. It not only reminded the Jews that they were a subjugated people, it also represented a religious affront. To the Jew there was only one King, and that was God, not Caesar. Paying tribute to an earthly non-Jewish monarch was something that the Hebrews had opposed throughout their long history. But there was more. The dirty work of collecting the tax was done not by the Romans, but by collaborating Jews. To make matters worse, it was common knowledge that what motivated Jews to take on this unpopular profession was that in addition to their salary they got to keep some of the money that they collected. We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. That is the only time in the New Testament that that term is used. It meant that he was over an entire district. Zacchaeus was the little man with the big reputation. He was not just well to do. According to Luke, he was rich. For all of his money however, he must have been a lonely man. He was despised by his own people. He was cut off from his community. There is symbolism in his title chief tax collector. It is another way of saying that among those who were despised, he stood out. He was prevented from seeing Jesus not only by the press of the crowd, but also due to social and religious ostracism.
This story is included in the scriptures because it is not just a story about Zacchaeus; it is a story of how we are meant to behave; first as Zacchaeus himself and then, of course as Jesus.
For some reason Zacchaeus sought to see Jesus. Yet, a large crowd filled with religious and nationalistic fervor was precisely not the place for him to be. He was exposing himself to public contempt and could have even become the focus of a mob scene. Yet, he went. Why?
The rejection and disdain that Zacchaeus experienced had to have affected how he viewed himself. Anyone who has ever been routinely criticized, demeaned or even misjudged knows how wounding that is. Having had these experiences it’s difficult to accept ourselves as worthwhile. We tend to see ourselves as others see us, and treat ourselves as others treat us. And to some degree, none of us totally escapes the messages of our culture that to be acceptable we need to be perfect. If Zacchaeus had fixated on himself; viewed himself critically through the eyes of others he never would have met Jesus. He never would have been healed. But Zacchaeus didn’t focus on his guilt. He didn’t hide in shame. He must have been drawn by the magnetism of grace. We don’t generally seek acceptance and forgiveness from an individual, if we know from the start that we will not receive it. People don’t set themselves up for rejection. So Zacchaeus went to find Jesus because he must have heard the stories of how the Master had received adulterers, publicans, the sick and the infirmed who were considered sinners; in other words the outcast of society; people just like him. And those stories not only gave him hope, it healed him to the point that he dared to put himself out there. He went to Jesus because of the drawing power of grace. It’s the same kind of grace that caused John Newton, a converted ex-slave trader, to write those immortal words: Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
Zacchaeus listened and with hope in his heart climbed a tree. And then a most remarkable thing happened. Jesus’ proclamation, “I must be a Guest in Your Home Today!” changed Zacchaeus. First, he was willing to make amends to those whom he had harmed, “If I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Certainly beyond the call of duty! And then he exclaimed a change of lifestyle, “Half of all that I have I give to the poor.” The Jewish Law prescribed giving 10% but Zacchaeus wanted to go beyond that. Zacchaeus was a genuinely changed man. He was now a big man not because he had grown in stature, but because he had grown in grace. We see in this story the power of forgiveness and acceptance.
We, like Zacchaeus can come to accept ourselves as imperfect and yet at the very same time, precious if we open ourselves up to grace; if we allow ourselves to see us as God sees us, then we can pray with conviction the words of the psalmist that we heard this morning: O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know my thoughts. You know everything I do. And you place your hand of blessing on my head. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. We all need to grow in self-acceptance. Unless we recognize the Devine Spirit living in and through us we will not climb the tree. We will not risk exposing ourselves and living our mission that the world so desperately needs.
And that brings us to the second lesson that we can draw from the story of Zacchaeus; a timely one for us to ponder. Scripture states that when Jesus came by Zacchaeus, looked up at him, called him by name and invited himself to his house, Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took and escorted Jesus in great excitement and joy. But the people in the crowds – not so much. They were incensed to hear Jesus inviting himself to the home of someone they considered to be a notorious sinner. They had forgotten that throughout the history of the Chosen People God has always used imperfect people to advance his mission. They had forgotten that Moses was a murderer. They had forgotten that Jacob was a con man. They had forgotten that David was an adulterer.
We are blessed to have the God-given gift of a democratic government in which we choose leaders and officials to uphold the constitution and the laws of our states and communities, provide for civil order, and protect our land and its people and secure the pursuit of happiness for all citizens. But, no human leader, no government official or office holder can heal the human heart, solve the problems of selfishness, greed, bigotry, or distrust or achieve justice for all. These powers belong to God and God alone. And God has always worked through the weak, the insignificant; partnered with imperfect individuals to do the important things; the necessary things. When we pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”, we are putting it on ourselves to do that important and necessary work. We are putting it on ourselves to believe that there is more love in this world than hate. We are putting it on ourselves to trust that despite the chaos and cynicism that is being expressed that the Mission of Jesus will continue. We are putting it on ourselves to be a sign of hope to quell the deep anxiety in the present and fear for the future.
Generosity and kindness will overcome self-centeredness and an attitude of “what’s in it for me?”
Where there is division let us continue as we have to welcome diversity and celebrate inclusivity.
When we hear words of hate let us pray for the ability to love those who hate what we stand for.
When we experience bragging and swagger let us pray for patience, tolerance and humility.
Where there is ridicule let us model respect.
When we fear for the future let us center ourselves to acquire serenity in the present.
And if this mandate to do our part to bring about the reign of God seems overwhelming, we must remind each other that God has always used the weak and the small to do the important. Moses had a speech impediment and yet convinced Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Mary, a newly engaged teenager from a small town gave birth to the Prince of Peace. Not those highly educated in Jewish Law and Scripture but fisherman began the Christian church that survives today because of other small imperfect people who accepted their human condition, their limitations, and yet loved enough to become saints, and leaders, and mentors, and movers and shakers and icons of goodness. We, no less than them, are called to do important things at this crucial time. And should we be afraid to accept our mission, we need to remember that we are not alone. Television broadcasting continuing to define news as bad things that happen, show footage of angry demonstrations happening around the country. But what they aren’t showing are the many gatherings in churches, synagogues, mosques and town squares across our land praying for healing, unity, peace and commitment to the common good. All week people have told me that they plan to dedicate themselves more to service and being a light for good, that we can’t afford to sit back and hope that others will do what is necessary. And in fact, this has always been the case. Perhaps the brokenness in our society that we’ve become so dramatically aware of this week will motivate us to be more careful with our words and intentional in our actions. And lest fear, self-doubt or insecurity hold us back, let’s remember that the words Jesus hollered out to Zacchaeus were meant for us too; as a country, as a church and as individuals: I Must be a Guest in Your Home Today! May the Prince of Peace bring us inner calm. May the Lord of Justice empower us for good, and may the God of Love reign throughout the world now and forever. Amen.