“Dead, We Are!”

~ Luke 19:1-10 ~

On this All Souls’ Day when we remember those who have gone before, we can do that because we are alive. On this Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos, we can honor our dead and gone ancestors because, well, we are not dead. However, last Sunday I suggested that we need to come to terms with the fact that we are, in fact, dead as well. In considering the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, I suggested that we really don’t like that parable because it plainly speaks to the truth of our condition. That the business of justifying ourselves before others, but especially before God, amounts to nothing. It means acknowledging the fact that we will never be free until we realize we are dead. For Jesus came to raise the dead. As Yoda might put it, dead we are and the sooner we accept that fact the better off we’ll be because that puts us in the place of being raised from the dead.

Consider this week’s sermon part two of what it means to be dead because our gospel reading is about a guy who thought he wasn’t -dead, that is. This week an acted-out parable – the story of Zacchaeus. Listen for God’s Word as I read from Luke 19:1-10.

[Jesus] 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 sycamore 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 Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions 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.”

Holy Words. Holy Wisdom.

Thanks be to God.

 

So, there’s Jesus and his entourage passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem, to his final week on earth, to his own ignoble death, when he meets this guy named Zacchaeus, who is described as “a chief tax collector, and rich.” Remember our friend, the tax collector, from last week – the despicable one? Well, here he is in the flesh with the same reputation. The people despise and hate him for his work as a tax farmer for the Romans. But Zacchaeus has another problem – he’s really short. So, as Jesus walks along, I imagine the crowd won’t let him up front because he is a traitor to his people, and his short stature makes it impossible for him to see anything from the back. But he really wanted to see Jesus, so he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree for a better view of the parade. Which reminds me of a children’s Sunday School song from way back:

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 the song continues the story:

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!

What an unexpected turn of events. Zacchaeus, of course, is thrilled, but the crowd is appalled. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they grumbled.

Jesus is not detoured and goes right in to the house to sit down for a nice, relaxed lunch because, remember, Zacchaeus is rich. But just as they all sit down, Zacchaeus stands up and launches into a pre-lunch speech. “Look, Jesus,” says the despicable tax collector trying to dispel his universally bad press, “I will give half of what I have to the poor and if I have given anyone a raw deal, I will make it up to him four times over!”

Let’s pause here for a moment. Does Zacchaeus’s pronouncement ring a bell? Remember that entirely unacceptable parable we talked about last Sunday? The Pharisee’s prayer was rejected, wasn’t it? Why? Because he tried to claim his moral accomplishments were what would make him acceptable to God. And the tax collector? Well, if we were honest we’d like him to come back with some improvements in hand to show he was earnest in his mea clupa. Well, here he is – Zacchaeus! With some reforms in hand! It’s like he had the Pharisee’s speech already in his pocket ready to pull out at the most opportune time. In this acted-out parable, if you will, the tax collector is making the Pharisee’s speech! Certainly, he thinks, my magnanimous gestures of good will and, yes, restorative justice (at least to some degree) will count for something! I’m really not the despicable loser that everyone thinks I am. I’m a winner! We’re not really sure Zacchaeus will actually follow through on his promise but that doesn’t matter to Jesus. Jesus has his own agenda.

So, what is Jesus’ agenda? How does he respond to this luncheon stump speech? If it was me I might just say, “OK, can we eat now?” But what does Jesus say to him? He says something straight off the wall, with no intervening explanation. Without referring one iota to Zacchaeus’ speech, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” OK, he also includes a phrase about Zacchaeus being a “son of Abraham.” I’m not sure what the import of that is. But what is crystal clear is the bit about “seeking and saving the lost.” Jesus is making a judgment here. He will not raise up Zacchaeus because he is trying to reform or improve. He only raises us up out of the nothingness of our death. Dead, we are, but that’s just what Jesus wants to work with.

So, despite himself, Zacchaeus is raised from death to life because that’s what Jesus does. As that Sunday school song concludes:

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.

But he is “a very happy man” not because he could put some moral bona fides on the table, but simply because Jesus declares him so. It is all about grace.

However, given that, I am tempted to lift up Zacchaeus’ standard of moral reform, his can-you-top-this restoration effort. Give away half his possessions? Now that’s a pledge worth noting.

Oh, did I mention that we are entering our annual stewardship campaign? So, with that segue let’s talk about that for a moment. No, we are not asking you to be a Zacchaeus. And certainly this is not about one-upmanship. Indeed, it really is not about performance.

Instead, it is really about gratitude. Rather than out of a sense of duty of obligation, or religious performance, stewardship comes out of a sense of thankfulness for what God has done in our lives and thankfulness for what God is doing in this church.

In coming Sundays you will hear from individuals, witnessing stewards, who will tell what it means for them, personally, to be a giving member of this church. And, in the next day or so, if not already, you will get in the mail a letter from me and a pledge card. You are encouraged to fill out the pledge card and bring it on December 1 for Consecration of Pledges Sunday.

Yes, it is that time of year again. As you have so faithfully in the past, now is the time to step up, with your financial support of this ministry. With your generous financial commitment we are able to continue to be a community of faith, hope and love – to care for each other and to stand for justice and peace. We are that community because we, the people of this church, are invested in the ministry of this church. May we all prayerfully consider our generous part in continuing the ministry of Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church. Amen.

 

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