This was my first sermon given at St. Luke’s Bethesda. This is a good introduction to me as a preacher, and my theology. The text is Luke 19:1-10. Enjoy!
The first paper I wrote in seminary was on Luke 19:1-10. That was 4 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. Four years ago, I wasn’t even an Episcopalian; and now, well, in a little less than two weeks, I’m going to be ordained to the Transitional Diaconate. The Church that sent me to seminary 4 years ago is what I would now call an Evangelical, Conservative, Literalist church. As I stand before you today, two weeks away from my ordination, I have to tell you, I don’t even recognize the woman I was back when I first wrote on this text.
But, I did look at the paper I wrote on Luke 19, and I have to tell you, I had potential! (I also got an A)
In that time, I was just starting to unravel what I had been taught in the Evangelical Church, and starting to deal with the harm that experience caused. This text, and what I learned in the process of writing on it, are lessons that I cannot begin to tell you the importance of in my journey to be here. I found my theological self in the midst of these words.
Today, what I’m going to try to do, is take you through some of the process that I went through with this text 4 years ago, and weave in a bit of what I get from this text today. Hopefully, doing so will give you a good idea of what you can expect from me over the next several months. But more importantly, I hope these words give you permission and tools to dive into texts for yourselves. My hope is that when you leave here today, you will be able to take any text and do what I did with this one. And you’ll be able to start figuring out for yourself what Jesus was talking about, instead of just taking my word for it.
When I read this text a few words jump out at me: stature; hurry; must; grumble; sinner; salvation. I spent a lot of time thinking about these words, starting with the word Stature. Which I know, is a strange word to start with. Of all of the words I listed and that are in this text, I started with the word stature. I did this for a couple of reasons: 1. There was WAYYYYY too much baggage for a recovering evangelical surrounding the words sinner and salvation; and 2. Stature is a beautifully ambiguous term. It can mean short, or lacking social importance.
For someone coming out of a tradition that taught every word of the Bible was literally true, this word was invigorating. Here is a word challenging me to engage with it. Stature is kind of like the cool word in the corner that the evangelical church used to warn me about. And I walked right over to it and said: hey. Tell me about yourself.
And stature did!
In the story just before this in Luke, a blind beggar was prevented from reaching Jesus by a crowd who thought they were protecting Christ from someone unsavory. Jesus parted the crowd, rebuked them, and healed the blind man anyway.
In this story, I really believe that Zacchaeus wasn’t (or wasn’t just) vertically challenged. I think he was so unpopular, so detested, that the crowd was physically preventing him from even seeing Jesus.
Let’s think about why for a minute. Zaccheaus was the chief tax collector. I know in this day and age we have fairly negative associations with tax collectors, but in the ancient world, it was even worse. In other places in the New Testament you often here the phrase: sinners and tax collectors. Tax collectors were considered even lower than sinners. They took money and goods from fellow Israelites to give to the occupying Roman forces, and profited from doing so. The chief tax collector didn’t just do this for his job. He had to approach the Romans, negotiate a deal, and pay for the right to control the tax collectors in the area.
There are a lot of words in modern English that could be used to describe how the general public felt about Zaccheaus. But none of them are suitable to be said in church. So let’s just say he was loathed by the people who gathered around Christ that day.
Even though the general public hated him, Zaccheaus still wanted to see Jesus, badly. I guess it could just be because he wanted to see the rock star, but in my mind, it’s more than that. I think this because Jesus went totally against the social convention, and also sought out Zaccheaus.
Not only that, but Zaccheaus becomes super important to this story! Jesus tells Zaccheaus to hurry, because he must stay with him. Those words indicate an urgency! There is Divine action happening, and it involves Zaccheaus. Urgently, immediately, now! God is doing something, at this very moment, in this very place. And God is working through a man society says is not worthy of knowing God.
A want to take a moment here to think about this, because I think it is truly important. Society says Zaccheaus is bad. Really, really bad. Irredeemably bad. Deplorable. Society has given up on this man, and is even physically preventing him from getting to Jesus. Because in their eyes Zaccheaus is not worthy of God’s attention – and God’s love is totally out of the question.
Since the world kept Zaccheaus from him, God found Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus looked; God found.
A man who was hated, unwelcome, unwanted by the world, didn’t have to do anything other than look for God in order to be brought into God’s presence.
It gives me so much hope and peace to know that what society says is worthy or unworthy of God’s love is not what God says makes you worthy.
What this story tells me is that God makes love available to everyone, and all we have to do is look.
As we continue in this story, we see that the gathered masses are not happy about what Jesus is doing. They grumble at the decision to go to Zaccheaus’s house. There is dissent, disbelief! How could Jesus want to love and honor someone so terrible!?!?
You know what I love about this story? Jesus doesn’t answer them. He ignores the grumbling. In my mind there’s a shrug and Christ’s internal monologue is something along the lines of: whatever. I’m God. I don’t have to explain myself to you.
This story in Luke builds off of other stories of Christ and his teachings from this and the other Gospels. What we know of Christ is that he is looking for the lost, the marginalized, the ones who society says aren’t worthy of God’s love. I don’t think Jesus does this because the rest of us aren’t worthy of God’s love, but the rest of us have probably heard once or twice before that we are loved and welcomed, by God and by society. But people like Zaccheaus, and the blind beggar in the story before, they probably haven’t heard that. And God wants to make sure they know.
Society has determined that Zaccheaus is a sinner, but God hasn’t decided the same thing. Jesus sees good beneath what society says is a wrong and bad man.
For me, digging into this text, with my evangelical background, this idea that Sin isn’t what I’ve always been told it is, was life giving.
I’m still worthy of God’s love, even though I’ve been called a sinner and told I wasn’t worthy because I’m gay, and have cussed, and had a drink (or 2), and engaged in a few other behaviors that don’t need to be named (God knows); the totally of which means I am a human being who has actually lived my life instead of sitting in a corner waiting for life to come to me. And God loves me anyway!
There is still one word left that jumped out at me in this text. Salvation. There may not be a more loaded word in modern day Christianity. I can hear it now, the echoes of the messages being shouted at me through bullhorns: repent and be saved! Or else.
There’s a lot of stuff and hurt and emotions and fear and anger wrapped up in this one word.
So I looked up the word. In Greek, the word that Christ uses here means a “restoration of wholeness.” What I think this means is that Zaccheaus was restored to the whole person he was created to be. Zaccheaus had not been perfect, nor was he living the life the way Christ taught – but he also hadn’t met Christ before!
Zaccheaus voluntarily gave up a lot of stuff, not all, but a lot. In the previous chapter there’s a rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told that man he should sell all that he has and follow Jesus. And that rich man declined.
Jesus didn’t ask anything of Zaccheaus. Jesus merely acknowledged that Zaccheaus already had salvation. Salvation, you see, is more than just eternal life. In the evangelical world what we hear a lot of is that all we have to do is ask, or believe, and eternal life is ours. And maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But that’s definitely not what I think salvation means.
I think, salvation is both eternal life, and how we live our lives, right now, here, in this place, at this time. Zaccheaus wasn’t being whisked off to heaven right then. He was learning what it takes to live a full, complete, and whole life.
Salvation means the same thing today. It means how we live our lives now, as well as how do we get into heaven.
And it is, unfortunately, more difficult than merely saying a prayer (as I was told in college), or believing. Really, what’s belief without action?
What Christ offers us is more than a free ride to heaven. What Christ offers us is the same as what he offered Zaccheaus: a way to live our lives fully and completely, as we were created to live them. This salvation is available to all of us.
It’s up to you to say yes. And then, to decide what you’re going to do about it.
So what are you going to do about it? Amen