Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:
Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Anniversary Sunday – All Saints Day
November 3, 2019
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
When Jesus meets Zacchaeus, it is at the very end of his ministry. The very next day, or even that same afternoon, depending upon how you read it; Jesus and the disciples will make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the fateful last week of his life will have begun. Zacchaeus is the last follower he recruits. And even if he seems like an odd choice, Zacchaeus is going to fit right in, because according to the Gospel of Luke, the motley crew following Jesus consists of the twelve disciples, Zacchaeus, and – working backwards – a blind beggar, a group of mothers and children, a man with dropsy, a old woman formerly bent over, a boy with a demon, a widow’s son, a centurion’s servant, a woman wasted by haemorrhage and a twelve year old girl, a man with a withered hand, a leper, and a few people once possessed by demons. You can imagine them scattered along the road behind him. Hardly a troop of conquering heroes about to establish a new world.
But that is exactly the point that Jesus was making when he preached about the Kingdom of God. It isn’t that there is one group of people over here who will be great organizers and planners and builders – and another group of people over there that are so messed up and pathetic that they deserve compassion and help. Not a matter of the ones who do the work and the others who get carried. Jesus sees with utmost clarity the foibles and fragility of the supposedly wealthy and the ostensibly powerful. And when he looks at the poor, and the sick, and the suffering, he sees the strength in them, the health that they have. He never says, even to the weakest among them, oh, you poor thing, let me rescue you, let me help you. What Jesus does again and again is to look at a person and say, as if he is filled with awe, your faith has made you whole. Or, you are set free from bondage. Or, child, get up!
In the story today, Jesus knows perfectly well who Zacchaeus is – Zacchaeus works for the Romans to extort unfair and onerous payments from his fellow Jews. He’s the chief tax collector, he runs the system. He’s not a groveling sinner, at least not yet, but he is interested in Jesus. Has the resourcefulness to think of climbing a tree to see him. And Jesus looks up and says – I need to talk to you. I am coming to your house. By the end of the encounter, Zacchaeus has begun a life’s work of making amends, and there is one more person in the rag-tag band of followers.
The church hasn’t always been good at imitating Jesus in this refusal to accept the conventional wisdom about who is valuable and who is not. All too often the church has thought of itself as performing acts of mercy toward the vulnerable, and not made the effort toward radical inclusion that came so naturally to Jesus. In the language of sixties pop psychology, the church has often more or less said, ‘I’m okay, you’re not okay. But I’m so nice that I’ll be nice to you anyway.’ This is not at all what Jesus was doing. His gift was to see beyond the weakness and find the strength. To engage the illness and find the health. In everyone. In the kingdom that he preached, it was to be all hands on deck, working together complete with frailties and quirks, energy and tiredness, capabilities and defects. The call to be the church is exactly this call – to find and value and encompass the gifts of everyone in the shared adventure of faith. And to put up with each other while doing it!
This is not by any means a simple assignment, it takes practice, and sometimes patience. But it is our calling. On a day when we recall the past, and give thanks for the saints, and make decisions together about the future, we remember our calling. And as we do our best to work together to be the church, we remember that we are not alone., and for this we give God thanks.