Come Down Zaccheus!

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Luke 19:1-10

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Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

 It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in.  Given the troubles of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day.  Has life chased you up the tree of doubt?  Or are you treed in the branches of idolatry—idol-a-tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Or stuck without faith in the religion tree?   Jesus calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love.

Doubting Zaccheus

Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence in life or the goodness in God.   To doubt that ‘God is at work in the world to make and to keep human life human’ (John Bennett).  Randomness may have treed you.

No one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do.  But if you will come down a limb or two from your philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may hear faith.  God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, and certainly not a paean to providence.  It is just something we can notice together.

We played golf one day.  On the last hole, I pulled out a three wood and hit a grounder, that nonetheless rolled right to the green.  If I had connected, I would have smashed the clubhouse window, for it was way too much club.  Sometimes a bad thing, a worm burner golf shot, interferes with a really bad thing, a $1000 broken window.

One Sunday, years ago, I drove late to church.  I used to run early Sunday and finish memorizing the sermon along the way, as I did on that Lord’s Day.  I just forgot the time.  We raced to church , and in so doing I cut a corner, literally, and so popped a car tire.  I was not happy to hear my son say, “haste makes waste”.  You know, though, both rear tires were thin.  I had replaced the front two months earlier, and forgot about the rear ones.  I have to admit, it was good that I had reason to replace them, before I had a blowout, on the highway.  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing prevents a really terrible thing from happening.

Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery.  He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh.  He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear.   Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river.  They went to Pharaoh, looking for food.  And who met them, as they came to plead?  There was Joseph.  He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.”  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next.

So in Jericho, as Jesus found the little man up in the tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8).  Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows?  That hurts, to see divine attention given to those who have harmed you.  Why would he have a meal with someone who takes no thought for the hurt of God’s people?  This is bad!  And it is.  We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this.  This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished the church ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons.  This is Jesus consorting with sinners.  But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large.  Zaccheus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.

Come down from this one tree, doubting Zaccheus.  I know that bad things happen to good people, and as a pastor hardly anything troubles me more.  Sometimes, though, sometimes—not always, just sometimes–a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late.  I have seen it, and you have too.  It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch.  Think of it as existential vaccination.

It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds.  Even in this autumn of anxiety and depression. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this season of cultural demise is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of a just, participatory and sustainable world, that these darker days will move us toward a fuller light. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part.

Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem.  The lion and the lamb.  No crying or thirst.  The crooked straight.  All flesh.

The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham.  God wants your salvation.  Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock).  Jesus Christ saves us from doubt.

So come down Zaccheus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt.  Come down Zaccheus!  The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt.

Idolatrous Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, down from your overly zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life.  Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God.  Zaccheus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards.  Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine.  Into this relationship, Jesus invites him.  More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree.  He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.

We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall.

Remember last week, and our prayer for forgiveness of sin?  We confessed lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and…’integrity without humility’, pride.  Say you were an attorney general in a state with a governor’s election ten days away.  You find a folder on your desk, empty, but with a pending potential investigation.  You feel that your integrity requires that you tell the whole inhabited earth about a pending possible investigation about which you know nothing.  You remember your Boy Scout law (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent), and decide your integrity requires a statement.  But what of your humility? (The scout motto—a good turn daily—not just the law).  Humility would require you to consider due process, to consider past practice near elections, to consider the advice of your colleagues in law enforcement, and to consider the nuances of the situation and your conscience.  Integrity, alone, bulldozes blazes and blasts  past all these.  Harm is done.  Integrity without humility is the worst of the seven deadly sins—pride.  When we grow up, sometimes, we recognize the peril of integrity alone, the great steed of integrity, without the bit and bridle and saddle of humility—pride.

Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty than the one owed to God.   We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.  Rather, let us remember the student of Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians: your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess. 1: 4).

Do you see the danger?  Come down Zaccheus, come down, before it is too late.    Make sure your lesser loyalties—to government, family, home, all—do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty, that all of your daily tasks do not eclipse a living memory of a common dream:

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We harbor a common dream, a dream that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

We harbor a common dream, finally a dream not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

Wealthy Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, come down, at last.  Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and resentment and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring.  In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us in this room is wealthy.  Ours are first world problems.  Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, is aimed at this point.  For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important.  That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we.  This is what makes the account of Zaccheus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call:  come down.  Be careful as you do not to trip over wealth, power or health.  We lose them all, give them all away, over time.  They are impermanences.  They go.  Better that we see so early.  Time flies—ah no.  Time stays—we go.

Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zaccheus that caused him to give away half of what he had?  I would.

It is a western, white, male, educated, wealthy, healthy, heterosexual, middle class, two handed world.  I need to be reminded of that.  Come down Zaccheus, and feel the pain of others.  And:  Soon we will all be dead.  Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless.  Come down Zaccheus, come down!

Before we left seminary, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us.  I worked nights as a security guard in those years and would come home to sleep at 7am.  Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident.  About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up into our floor, and then into our room.  I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head.  Boy did I shout.  She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police.  By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing.  They took her away.  Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept.  The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen.  Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth.  Perhaps tthe Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to.  Come down Zaccheus, and use your wealth for the poor.

Religious Zaccheus

Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we?  Come down Zaccheus, come down!  No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering today, and that is loving relationship.  No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of sturdy churchmanship can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of church music, instrumental or vocal, can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship.  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other.  That is salvation.  Are we lovers anymore?

Like Zaccheus in the tree, religion can dwell above Jesus, high and aloof.  Is it good to be above Jesus?

It was the German monk Martin Luther who, in 1517, went alone and nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, and thereby splintered inherited religion to bits.  The words of this same Luther were read, as interpretation of Romans 8, on the rainy night in London, 1738, along Aldersgate Street, as John Wesley’s heart, at long last, was strangely warmed, and he came down from the tree of religion, to sit at table with the Faith of Christ.  We remember Luther this Sunday every year.  We pointedly remember that we are saved by faith, by faith alone, by grace we are saved by faith, and not by any or all the works of the law.

Here is an old, ostensibly humorous story.  A man approaches the pearly gates.  “Tell me about the good in your life (says Peter):  admission requires 100 points.”  “Well, I once gave to the United Way (1 point).  And, I remember I shoveled a neighbor’s walk (1 point).  I used to go to church (1 point).”  (Pause).  ‘You, know I’ll never make it to 100 points except by the grace of God’.  (GRACE OF GOD—97 POINTS).

Luther recalls us down from the religion tree, to sit at the table of faith:

“Sola Fide”

“Crux Sola Nostra Theologia”

“Sin Boldly, but trust upon the Lord Jesus Christ more boldly still”.

“In the midst of the affliction He counsels, strengthens confirms, nourishes, and favors us…. More over, when we have repented, He instantly remits the sins as well as the punishments. In the same manner parents ought to handle their children

“Thus every matter, if it is to be done well, calls for the attention of the whole person.”

“If there is anything in us, it is not our own; it is a gift of God. But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love, that is, to the law of Christ. And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself. Thus my learning is not my own; it belongs to the unlearned and is the debt I owe them…My wisdom belongs to the foolish, my power to the oppressed. Thus my wealth belongs to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners

“It is with all these qualities that we must stand before God and intervene on behalf of those who do not have them, as though clothed with someone else’s garment…But even before men we must, with the same love, render them service against their detractors and those who are violent toward them; for this is what Christ did for us.”

“Teaching is of more importance than urging.”

“One learns more of Christ in being married and rearing children than in several lifetimes spent in study in a monastery

“One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation

“What would it profit us to possess and perform everything else and be like pure saints, if we meanwhile neglected our chief purpose in life, namely, the care of the young?”

“Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling within us; in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutuality, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” The Annotated Luther, Vol. 1: The Roots of Reform, Timothy J. Wengert, Ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 525).

Come down Zaccheus!  Come down from the doubting tree, the tree of idolatry, the wealth tree, the tree of religion.  Come down and receive the Gospel:  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with himself, and thereby into loving relationship with our neighbors.

Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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