By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA
October 30, 2022
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
Let us pray – Lord, you see us and call to us and show up at our house without giving us time to straighten everything up. Startle us again with your nearness. And Lord, help us to respond with joy. Amen.
It’s a rare person who likes being called in October: called on for a major gift of time or money, called on for their vote, called to bring snack for the Halloween party, called to account for the year’s spending. Many people chuck the letters, send the calls to voicemail, or feel stressed by all the people shaking the trees this time of year.
But have you ever wondered if, instead of the letters, the minutes for mission, or Zaccheus up in that tree every October, what if congregations were funded by advertising? It seems the way that most industries are moving. Think about it: people invited to the communion table, brought to you today by the good folks at Pepperidge Farm. Or there could be product placements in sermons… The pastor eating a large bag of Skittles while preaching on Noah and the Flood, and then gazing at the camera and saying, “Taste the Rainbow.” Or churches emulating the airlines. They might label the back pew “premium seating” available for only $39.99 a month. Churches could sell headsets that allow worshippers could pick a sermon topic and music tailored to their mood that day. And then, the ultimate package, for only $100 a month, we might guarantee someone’s salvation, after-life insurance of sorts, a “get out of church free” card if you will. Makes a great stocking stuffer.
All of this sounds mildly offensive or completely absurd, except something like that actually happened. In the 1500s, the church had major building campaigns to fund, so it began selling indulgences, which were in essence a forgiveness surcharge. There was even a ditty that went, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs.” And it was that practice that ultimately led Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenburg, 504 years ago tomorrow, which kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Luther called the church out for its manipulation and abuse of power. And he called us back to the deep theology of the Gospel, whereby our salvation is not ours to buy or earn by certain acts, but it is a gift of grace through Jesus Christ. And that gift elicits from us deep wells of gratitude and joy.
Luther would have great material from today’s text: Enter Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus didn’t care much if he looked strange, sprinting ahead of the crowds in his expensive clothes, shimmying up a tree to get the prime view even if that spot was usually reserved for kids. It mattered not to him. There was something about being filthy rich and short that had cultivated in him a bravado that few people understood. His career had given him audacity and an ability to take freely from other people, and his height, that thing that he couldn’t change about himself even with all the money in the world, it had given him an early taste of social rejection, and after awhile, a person can get used to that. There he waited in the tree, like a silly piñata beaten around by the crowds, but also like a hawk eyeing what it wanted.
Jesus had been covering some ground along the Jericho Road, stopping to tell some parables that mentioned tax collectors specifically, how they might be the kind of outcast who gets special attention from Jesus, telling some parables about how rich people struggle to enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, and, he had stopped to play with some kids, mentioning that the kingdom of Heaven came easily to them. And then just on the outskirts of Jericho, Jesus had stopped to heal a blind beggar that the crowds had considered a nuisance. So we know that in the crowd that passed Zacchaeus up in that tree there was an astounded no-longer-blind man whose eyes were probably weeping with all the new color of the world.
And despite all those interactions, it is still a complete shocker that Jesus stops the whole parade at the foot of a sycamore tree and calls out this Zacchaeus by name. “Zaccheus, hurry on down, I’m staying at your house tonight.” And while it might have been in character for Zacchaeus to wave Jesus on and avoid the eye-rolling crowd, the Bible says that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome him. The word here is Kairos, which is a holy kind of happiness. I am not sure what I would feel if Jesus invited himself to my house today – Most likely I would want 10 minutes to feverishly tidy up my house and be sure breakfast plates were in the dishwasher. But Zaccheus was full of joy.
Then to continue the shockwave, once Jesus came to his house, this rich man gave away half of his fortune to the poor and repaid his fraud four times over. Scholars are still fact checking this radical pledge. Some wonder if he offered it in the moment but walked it back later, and others believe he meant every word of it. To me, it doesn’t matter. Both sides look like miraculous generosity. If Zaccheus was bluffing, Jesus offered radical salvation to a wanton sinner, and therein we have a fine Reformation Sunday message. But if Zaccheus was sincere, somehow the camel actually went through the eye of the needle and an unpopular rich man completely changed his life at the proximity of Jesus. And what’s more, a crowd that was short on empathy, short on hope, weary of people who climbed over others to get to the top, a crowd not unlike our weary nation, had their vision restored to the full color of grace and hope.
The church in the 21st century might feel out on a limb culturally. Shorter in stature than we used to be and sometimes met with suspicion. What would Jesus find if he barged in on the 21st century church today? Would he be disoriented when someone asks him to pose for a selfie? Would he groan as people pepper his tunic with campaign stickers? Would he be exhausted when he’s reminded that he’s late to the billions of meetings started ostensibly by him?
Likely he would call us down from whatever we have been using to keep a safe distance. That is what Jesus does. And likely we would be called toward the crowd where there are real hurting people. They are all around us. Crying out from the Donbas and Haiti. Crowded in detention centers and shelters and under the overpass we drive by every morning and overdosing by the thousands. We said we wanted to see Jesus, and he would grant us that. There he is in the cancer unit and pushing a grocery cart down the sidewalk. And the closer we get to them, the more alive we feel. We realize that we are made for this calling. We are saved by this calling. And like Zaccheus, we are called by name.
The word for church, ecclesia, means called out. We are the called out ones. Jesus’ words echo in our ears… that those who seek to preserve their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will find them. So like Zaccheus before us, suddenly it is not anxiety or intrusion we feel at all when we shimmy down the tree into thrum of humanity, but sudden all-encompassing joy, determination, and purpose. And the next thing we know, we sit down to dinner and find ourselves giving more and forgiving more than we ever thought was possible.
And it is at that table, in our case the communion table. that we understand in our bones that God never asked anything of us that wasn’t already given to us to begin with. We remember that history does not swing on the actions of our human heroes or villains, nor does it depend on our acts of generosity. It hinges on an empty cross. Where God came to our house to dwell with humanity once and for all. Hope did not die on that tree but came down and flooded the entire universe with lavish grace, wild hope and new vision. A vision of people loving their enemies and serving their neighbors and trusting in the quiet of their soul that death does not have the final word.
There’s a quote I say to myself from time to time when I am tempted to stay in the safety of my sycamore tree… “What I spent, is gone; what I kept, I lost; but what I gave away will be mine forever” (Ethel Percy Andrus).
It reminds me of a woman named Ina Ingraham. She was my confirmation mentor and kept in touch with me for more than 20 years after my confirmation class. She’d served more than 50 years as a Presbyterian elder. God knows how many meals she delivered. God knows how many cards she mailed. God knows how many checks she wrote. God knows how she endured the death of her beloved husband and showed up the next Sunday to serve communion. God knows how many people in that town were touched by her life. When I was newly in ministry, I called her to ask what did it for her. Did all this devotion come from a great connection with a minister? Was it a certain way they did the stewardship ministries at First Pres.? Some catchy ad campaign or brochure? I wanted to know. I would take notes. But her response touched me and called me back to the truth. “Oh honey, just gratitude and joy. What else is there?”
That might be the truest stewardship message I have ever heard. Why do you schlep cans for ECHO? Why do you secretly support a preschooler’s education costs in Kenya or plant flowers on Burke Center Parkway or call upon a woman who can’t get to church or drive down to ChristHouse or head back to Montreat even when your life is far from perfect and you are feeling squatty and out on a limb in general? Why do you do whatever it takes to be in the presence of Jesus, no matter how hard and unfair life can be? Another chance to be with the one who has saved us in every way and will again and again. Another taste of gratitude and joy. What else is there?