Luke 19:1-10 Zacchaeus
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
On this morning when we bless our confirmation students, I found it delightful that our scripture passage today is the story of Zacchaeus. If you spend anytime in church you would have heard this story of the wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And you have sung the song.
But I’m not sure if this group of students has ever sung the song. So I have asked the Praise Team to sing the song and all of you who know can join in.
Praise Team sings “Zacchaeus”
(As I suspected, cuts across generational lines. The adults were singing and even doing the motions the youth were looking around wondering what it was that was going on.)
Many of us grew up on these songs: Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man, All the Children of the World, Deep and Wide, The B-I-B-L-E...
Just a nostalgic note: Most youth gatherings in my day began with a good half hour of singing these songs.
I can’t imagine beginning confirmation with even one song, let alone ½ hour of singing...
But I also can’t imagine being a part of a church culture that no longer sings.
You know as your Pastor, one of my jobs is to help us as a congregation walk that line between what has been, what is and what can be. To honor the past. To acknowledge the present. And to look at what we need to be to have a future.
This is why we begin our council meetings with reflection. We ask ourselves: What do we exist for? What is God doing among us? And Would the church be missed in this community if we closed our doors? Past, present, future.
And we have to do all three simultaneously. For we can’t get glorify the past by forcing kids to sing songs for ½ hour at every youth gathering while the kids roll their eyes, and we can’t merely live in our present complacent about our future. We have to do all three at once. Which is what is exciting about being a church together.
We are the place that affirms: Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.
What we practice here in the church every single Sunday is what the rest of the world would like to know how to do. How do we integrate these young people in a past, present and future? How do we live in a past, present and future? This I believe is one of the great angst of the 21st century. If we insist on living in the past we chose death, if all we do is live in the present we chose narcissism, if we only long for the future we chose pie in the sky, the great by and by and we are of no earthly good.
In the most recent Christian Century, Peter Marty, a pastor, theologian, and politician contemplated this angst:
He referred to a letter to the editor that sounds familiar in this election year: He writes:
I never cease to be amazed by calls for America to return to a previous era of greatness. Although historians have yet to locate such an idyllic chapter in our nation’s history, their conclusions haven’t stopped large segments of the population from glorifying the past.
for a different take on the good ol’ days, try reading your newspaper’s letters to the editor. Here’s one I came across recently:
The battle between good and evil is raging out of control in America. We are doomed so long as our country insists on trashing the Ten Commandments and failing to return to Jesus. We will never return to the greatness of our past until we return to God and put prayer back in our schools. It’s time for America’s sin-sick soul to wake up.
Notice the author’s reliance on the word return. One wonders what past era he might have in mind. Was it America’s legacy of enslaving African peoples, only to lynch numbers of them later? Was it the 18th century and its primitive medicine, or the 19th century and its marginal sanitation? Perhaps his cherished past exists somewhere in the past 100 years, when women still lacked the right to vote, laborers had frighteningly few rights, the needs of the disabled went largely ignored, Agent Orange wreaked havoc, and the waterboarding of terror suspects became acceptable to some top brass.
Nostalgia that ignores blemishes of the past makes for shabby history. (From: Make today great again Christian Century Oct 21, 2016 by Peter W. Marty)
We do the same thing in the church. We glorify those past days when the pews were full and confirmation class numbers were closer to 20 than 5.
But just like glorified past of our nation’s history the history of the church is also not always something to be glorified.
Having larger confirmation classes didn’t bend the world towards justice. Having fuller pews didn’t create a society in which all were honored for being children of God. Having more members on the church roles didn’t create a merciful society. In other words: the Church of the past, as large and as powerful as it could have been, wasn’t. It didn’t save the world.
While we might wish for the days when we sang “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” It is obvious that the message of this gospel story didn’t sink in. For we are still living the life Zacchaeus rejected. We are still not following Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was an agent of the state. And not a very honest man. The system required him to take a cut of the taxes he collected in order to make a living. In other words, he wasn’t paid a living wage. He had to collect his wages on the backs of the people who were taxed by the Roman government. The whole system was rigged against him, the citizens and the local economy. Because of this the community barely tolerated him. And Zacchaeus became justifiably rich. According to the system.
Yet, Zacchaeus must have been feeling like something was out of balance. Like he needed to make a change but wasn’t sure what it would or should be.
He had heard about Jesus. A man who was telling people that their lives were to be centered on care of neighbor and love of God.
Zacchaeus knew he was taking money from his neighbor. He knew he was honoring the Roman system and therefore the Roman gods. Was he wondering if this was making him feel ill at ease?
So when he heard that Jesus was coming he wanted to see him.
And it turns out Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus.
In their encounter, somehow in someway, Zacchaeus realized that his life could be different. That what Jesus was teaching was Truth and Life and Salvation.
So he gave away his fortune to the poor. He gave back the money he had cheated out of his neighbors.
He was no longer going to be known as the rich tax collector. But more importantly, he was no longer going to be a pawn of the government system that abused the poor.
I wish we knew more of the story. How Zacchaeus’ life played out. Did he have to sell his house? Did his family suffer?
All we know is that he gave up wealth and changed his habits to follow Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor.
All we know is that Zacchaeus was profoundly saved from a life of meaninglessness.
Maybe we don’t need to know the rest of the story because maybe we are called to live out the rest of the story if we so chose to follow Jesus. While we might not be actual cheaters of the poor, we are certainly people who haven’t been willing to give half of everything we have to the poor. And by we I don’t mean each of us individually, I mean we as the church. And I don’t even mean we as Chatfield UMC, I mean we as the Church universal. As we look at our past we see a Church willing to build huge structures and institutions that cost lots and lots of money. And somebody had to pay for it. And, unfortunately somebody still has to pay for it. And the cost of the institution puts stress on the churches like ours.
So we have a lot of angst in the church, in the institution and in the pews about the future.
We ask ourselves what will the church look like when these young people come back to raise their families in the church. I attend lots of meetings where the hand wringing is profound and the message is dire.
But I believe the gospels give us hope. In this story of Zacchaeus. And in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. IF we follow the way of Jesus. IF we seek for salvation. IF we live our lives for God and neighbor.
For what does Jesus say: I have come to seek and to save that which is lost. Even a church that is lost.
What we have lost is not a glorified past. What we have lost is not a brilliant future. What we have lost is a present that honors the past and learns from it. What we have lost is the will to change the story so that we honor the present we are called to live.
So that these young people will see by our example that we can reject the systems that require us to pawns to a way of life that doesn’t honor God. So that these young people can see by our example that the way to live is by honoring God and caring for neighbor. So that these young people will be nurtured by those who are being saved and made holy by the Christ who find us and called to us each and every day: come down and let me come to your house let me stay with you and show you how to live.