Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • October 30, 2016
Jesus said to [Zaccheus], “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.
— Luke 19:9-10
“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” Did you grow up with that song? I did; I can’t help it running through my head when I read about him. So many of the Bible characters are overlain by songs and stories we’ve heard, made up over the years. How did you imagine Zaccheus when I read the story? How did you imagine the scene?
There are some things in the story Luke would have known we may not. Jericho is an ancient city that was the last stop on the way to Jerusalem. In fact, this story marks the end of a long section in the gospel, the section we’ve been reading through with its parables and stories of lost people being forgiven and reclaimed by Jesus. Jericho is a way station; it’s on the way to Jerusalem and Luke knows what will happen there, as we do, don’t we? It’s fall here, a long way from Palm Sunday in our calendar, but in the gospel, we’re right on the edge of arriving at Jerusalem.
Jesus has collected a crowd around him and the approaches to the city are full of stalls where people are selling all kinds of things. Over there is brightly dyed cloth and someone else has pottery. There are jewelers and someone selling used donkeys. Now bazaar sellers are great marketers. They don’t wait for you to come to their stall, they grab your arm, they thrust their pots and tunics and camels right at you. “Here, see this blanket, I should ask 5 denarii for it, but today I’m feeling crazy and, for some reason, I’ll let it go for three!”, one says, while another is pushing fresh bread, “Just try it, try one bite, you won’t be able to resist!” Jesus and his friends make their way through this crowd. The smells of food cooking, the donkey smells too, the conversations in many languages, the pushing, the jostling. the beggars and of course the constant wariness about pickpockets, all this is going on. What is it like to be in a crowd? We’ve all been there; maybe you went to a festival, Lark Street or somewhere, maybe you’ve gone to a parade. There are the colors, music, people, pushing, jostling. Not much has changed about this, so it shouldn’t be hard for us to feel what it’s like.
Jesus in Jericho
Jesus is a minor celebrity. They’ve heard he’s a healer, a teacher, maybe someone who is coming to do something about the Romans. He’s a parade waiting to happen, an event always about to occur. You can’t stay home and watch it on CNN because television won’t be invented for a few hundred years, so you have to go yourself. And of course you go with friends. There they are: all together, the ones who believe him, the ones who jeer, the ones who just want to sell “Jesus for Messiah” tunics, the hopeful ones, the dirty ones, the followers, the curious, all making a crowd in this bazaar.
But one of them isn’t there with friends. His name is Zaccheus and he doesn’t have friends, just clients, and angry ones at that. Zaccheus is a little man who does the dirty work for Herod, collecting taxes, enforcing payment. People say he cheats and maybe he does; he’s a sharp competitor. He’s probably rich; not many are. Just like we aren’t as familiar with the geography that Luke knows, we aren’t as tuned into the politics. But we can understand it. After all, we are in the midst of an amazingly divisive political campaign. It isn’t partisan to comment people are losing friends and deleting them on Facebook over backing different candidates.
Zaccheus is a rich collaborator with the Roman-backed government. He’s not the kind of man you invite home to dinner or buy a drink for in the local tavern. Zaccheus may have a nice house but no one visits there, no one drops by and says, “I was just wondering how you were doing, Zach.” What does such a man think about at the end of the day? What does he hope? What does he wish? I think of him as a man who has become isolated. He has lots of things; he may not have lots of fun.
Zaccheus is curious like everyone else. But he isn’t big enough to bull his way through the crowd and anyway I imagine most crowds around there included some people who would have been happy to see him knocked around a bit. So he climbs a tree, a sycamore tree. It’s not a big tree, but it has lots of branches and there he sits, all alone, up in his tree, waiting for this Jesus to come past, waiting for a glimpse of…what? What exactly did Zaccheus hope to see? The story says, “He wanted to see who Jesus was”. Isn’t that in a sense what we all want? Sunday after Sunday we come here hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus. All over this community, all over everywhere, Christians are in churches where they will hear stories they’ve heard before, just like us, hoping to see Jesus.
A Child of God
Whatever Zaccheus hoped, up there in his tree, surely he wasn’t prepared for what happened. Jesus is walking past, the center of this crowd, people are yelling prices, people are calling questions, people are asking for healing, it’s a noisy crowd and suddenly he stops and the noise must have stopped too. Just that moment of stillness, right there, right under the tree, and Jesus looks up and sees this man, this lonely little man, up in a tree. And right there, right then, he smiles and speaks.
We don’t really know what was said; did he greet him: “Shalom”? Luke says he called out, “Zaccheus, come down, I must stay at your house today” . What went on in Zaccheus in that moment? What went on in you when someone called you out of your tree? There’s a low murmur from the crowd; they know there are a lot of people in Jericho who deserve this special recognition more than this tax collector. He’s not one of us, he’s not a good man, he doesn’t go to worship, he doesn’t pay his tithe, he doesn’t do right. “Jesus! Some Messiah! Look, off to have dinner with that sinner!”, they say. The crowd looks at Zaccheus and sees just this: the difficult little man who doesn’t fit in. But Jesus sees something else. To Jesus, Zaccheus is a son of Abraham. That is—a child of God, a person God meant to make a blessing. This is how Jesus sees Zaccheus; whatever Zaccheus sees, this is what Jesus sees in him.
Zaccheus comes down and makes promises about helping the poor and changing his life. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t; who knows if he paid his pledge? But for that moment, at least for that moment, his life changed, not because he saw Jesus, but because he saw Jesus seeing him. Because Jesus came to him and called him out of his tree. “Come down, Zaccheus”.
This is what Jesus does: he comes to people, some are lost, some are waiting to be found. He comes to them and sees them and helps them see themselves in a new way. He sees the child of God in them.
Now we all come to see Jesus but what we really need is to see others as Jesus sees. This is the deep challenge he makes, every day: can we look at others as Jesus sees them? WE have so many categories for people: friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers. Even in the church, we do it: visitors, regulars, members, pastors, officers. Jesus has one category: child of God. When we look at someone that way, Jesus visits them too, just as he did with Zaccheus.
Someone Who Blessed Me
Let me tell you about someone who helped me by seeing me that way. Mercedes Carlson was an older lady in 1995 when I began preaching here. She was short and round, just like Zaccheus. She had one of those smiles that suggested she knew there was a great party somewhere and just might tell you about it. We all choose pews that become our regular place and Mercedes’ pew was down in front to my left. Those were difficult days for me. My father had recently died, I’d moved alone to a new community and a new church. I was used to preaching to a full congregation. My former church was full every week; my new one had lots of empty space and I found those rows of empty pews intimidating. People here weren’t too sure about the new pastor; like most churches, it was tough to make the transition.
But every Sunday, as I stood greeting at the back of the church, Mercedes would come and smile and say, “Thank you, Pastor, that was a terrific sermon!” In fact, she was so consistent in her enthusiasm for my sermons that after a few Sundays I began to suspect that maybe she did not have a critical facility. I soon learned, however, that it wasn’t a lack of critical facility; it was just that Mercedes couldn’t hear. When I first found this out, I was a little dismayed, to be honest; I’d relied a bit on the emotional satisfaction of knowing that someone really liked my preaching—it was tough to realize she hadn’t heard a word of it! But she did something much better than all the sermon evaluators of all time: she had gave me a unique and special grace. She didn’t have to hear my words; she only had to know I was God’s child and doing my best.
We all have this capability, to look at someone the way Jesus looked, to give them the grace they need to come down out of their tree. God didn’t put us here just to watch. We have a mission. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” That’s what he hopes we will do: that’s what he does with us. Every time we look at someone with the eyes of Jesus, every time we give someone the grace they need to come down out of their tree, Jesus visits. Go with God: be the blessing God intended.