October 30, 2016
Anthem: Prayer LitanySenior Choir
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Chances are, if you grew up in Sunday School at some point you heard or sang a song about Zacchaeus:
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 when the Savior passed that way
He looked up and said, ‘Zacchaeus,
You come down, For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
But a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.
Cute song. Age appropriate for the younger kids, who understand not being able to see over all the tall people around them. Or as Marylyn Bernard said in our discussion of this story, “Whenever I sit down at a show, sure enough, somebody Pastor Phil’s size sits in front of me and I cannot see.”
But this song is not going to carry us through the valleys of the shadow of death. This song is not going to see us through the dark night of the soul. It is cute. But it is not rated for carrying the load of our lives.
How many Bruce Springsteen fans do we have here this morning? His first two albums were released in 1973, and some of those songs play today as well as they did back then.
Recently, he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, and he said that the beginnings of his songs were found in his experiences with the Catholic Church. When he writes a song, the verses of the song are the blues, but with the chorus, he hopes that people can find something transcendent, something that lifts them, something that resembles what church was supposed to do. The verses are the blues, and the choruses are Gospel.
Doesn’t life feel this way some times?
We live verses of the blues: health problems, job problems, retirement problems, family problems, grief problems, the money ends before the month does problems,
But the choruses of life are the Gospel, are good news. Although sometimes the song feels like the chorus is never coming back around again.
How did church teach Bruce Springsteen this pattern? Is this not the way of many of our psalms. The psalms of lament: “my bones are like wax, there is no life left in me, Lord hear my cry!” But so many of the psalms of lament come around to a chorus of praise, a chorus of hope, a chorus of witness to the saving mercies of God.
The power of the psalms is that deep Jewish wisdom that when we honestly face the struggles, the pain, the suffering of life, then we can experience the hope.
All the song of Zacchaeus tells us is that he is short and he wants to see Jesus.
Scripture tells much more of the story: Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector in Jericho, and he was rich.
Jericho. Famous for the battle that Joshua fought, but in Jesus’ time, more famous for the winter palaces of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem, from the Hasmodians to the Herodians. The plantation of balsam trees that Mark Anthony bought as a gift for Cleopatra are in Jericho. (If there is a literal balm in Gilead, it was probably produced from these balsam trees.) Jericho was a rich place.
And tax collectors in those days got their jobs by bidding on the rights to collect taxes in a redion, and whatever they collected above the amount they bid was theirs to keep. We can see why they were distrusted.
What’s worse is that tax collectors are not Romans. They are fellow Israelites, fellow Jews. They are traitors, collaborators, working for Rome. In fact, the religious rules say that a tax collector in a family makes the whole family unclean. They are to be shunned. Their money cannot go to the Temple for sacrifices or offerings, because it is assumed to be blood money, whether literally or figuratively.
Jericho is a wealthy place, so the chief tax collector has to bid high. And Zacchaeus is a rich man, so the people know he is unethical. They know what he is, just as sure as they know who the prostitutes and the sinners are.
Which makes what Jesus does even more shocking. He does not go and eat with any of the probably hundreds of priests in town. He does not go and eat with the great benefactors of the synagogues or charities. He goes to Zacchaeus, the one everyone looks down on. And his height is the last reason they look down upon him.
And Zacchaeus makes a statement that is equally shocking: Half my wealth I give to the poor; if I have cheated anyone I repay back four times the amount.
I confess great difficulty here. It is so much easier to say it like the New Revised Standard Version does: I will give, I will pay back. That the encounter of Jesus is so revelatory that now this man whose position is one of difficult ethics and suspect wealth is now one who will participate in the ethics of the covenant of God.
But the language could also mean that this is his customary practice, that he already does this. There is no conversion language here.
Is the church ready to hear about an ethical 1-Percenter?
Why is it easier to read it one way than the other?
Was he ethical already, or did he become ethical because he encountered Jesus? I will leave that question open for now. What I will say is that being a part of the covenant of God, encountering Jesus, being saved, cannot be separated from covenantal ethics in the realm of money and possessions.
Everyone there knew who Zacchaeus was, knew what he did, knew everything they needed to know about him. Outcast. No different from prostitutes and sinners in the eyes of the faithful.
But Jesus does not allow him to simply be one dimensional. Jesus sees him in all the complexity of life.
Who do we only allow to be one dimensional? Black Lives Matter protestors? Police officers?
Who are the people that when we find out what their job is, we stay away? Kathie Cook told me out how quickly she follows up telling someone she is a lawyer with talking about how she does wills, trusts and estates, not personal injury. I sometimes get the same way telling people I am a pastor. There is enough distrust and bad assumptions that we get leery.
Who do we know everything we need to know about staying away from them when we see them? The mentally ill? The physically handicapped? Families that do not match our own? The poor? The rich?
Who have we grown up thinking that us being religious means we need to avoid them? People of other faiths or of no faith? People who love differently than we do? Foreigners?
I would love to say I do not judge people, but “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” I am much more likely to try and turn off the lights on a car in the parking lot if it is an older model with some rust on it than if it is a brand new luxury vehicle.
Whatever else it is, faith in Jesus Christ means looking for the dignity in people. Not he dignity as the world defines it. Not based on being rich or poor, settled or transient, healthy or ill, well known and well liked or isolated and distrusted. But the dignity of being a child of God.
Especially in those whom the world despises and shuts out. Especially in those whose lives are defined one dimensionally. Especially in the least of these in our midst.
For the dignity we have is the image of God in which we are all, all of us, every last one of us, created. If we cannot see that, then we have not seen Jesus passing through yet. If we have can see it, then let us act accordingly.
For until we are all free, none of us are truly free. But when we see one another as Jesus does, we will be free indeed.
Thanks be to God.