The Temporary Zaccheus
How does faith change you? How does love change you? How has this community of faith changed you? Ever stop to think about it? Lately I’ve realized because of this community of faith, and love, I am much friendlier to strangers than I was before. I give much more money away than would ever occur to me otherwise. I can know more moments of peace and calm; I’m less worried about death, more grateful for what I have. How are you different because of someone’s love, because of our faith in the God of love, because of this community of faith?
I started thinking about this when I heard about Tim, one of my kids’ friends, who just graduated from University of Maryland. I’ve known him since he was in high school, and he is very talented, and smart, a high achiever, and ambitious. He landed his dream job at a big, famous prestigious investment firm in New York City with the lucrative – okay, to me – mind-boggling – starting salary. It’s what he worked for his whole academic career. It’s exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
And I wonder if he’s miserable because he knows a different way of living this life. Up until now, his life has been filled with deep long-lasting relationships where people look out for each other. He’s part of a very tight-knit group of friends who’ve known each other since high school, some from even before then. They have always been there for each other, they’ve always helped each other through the hard times and the tough decisions. Even with demanding college courses and lives full of extra-curricular activities, they hung out together, talking, laughing, playing, teasing, traveling. So Tim knows what it is like to be surrounded by people who care about you, people you care about. And he didn’t know how bad – how empty and meaningless and lonely – life could be working in such a cut-throat culture where no one really cares. He might not put it this way, but from my perspective, I do wonder if deep friendship and love have ruined him for such empty, meaningless work.
Only, he hates it. He’s miserable. Co-workers don’t help each other, don’t even really talk to each other. Everyone is treated like they are the enemy and the competition. No one seems to care about anything other than working the longest hours and making the most money.
And Tim got me thinking about today’s scripture lesson, starring the very famous “wee little man” Zaccheus. Because Zaccheus had everything – An important job, wealth, status, prestige. But one day, it wasn’t enough for Zaccheus and the life he thought he wanted seemed empty and meaningless.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, 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.”
And we know this – not just because of the song you perhaps learned as a child in Sunday School or if you taught children in Sunday School, but because of this account in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10. Listen to how Zaccheus was transformed:
(Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zaccheus; 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. Zaccheus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half 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.”
What made the important, high ranking, wealthy, feared, powerful, disliked man Zaccheus – Who probably didn’t have any friends, because he presumably got wealthy off making the average folk pay more than their fair share of Roman taxes – What made him run, sandals slapping, robes flapping? What made him climb a tree? Where everyone could see him? It was unseemly, improper, humiliating, what he was doing. Imagine the Queen of England taking off down the street, climbing a tree – It’s pretty funny to think about. It’s like that.
May God take these ancient and perhaps familiar words, and breathe new life and meaning into them for us this day.
But something was shifting in his identity even before he met Jesus face to face. He was giving up what he thought really mattered, what he had spent his whole life pursuing and valuing. He was giving up the old criteria for success, the old definition of the good life. It wasn’t working for him anymore. He caught a glimpse of something different, and he climbed that tree for a better view.
And that’s the gift of faith, and the experience of God’s love in our lives. It helps us spot what is empty, and meaningless. It tells us there is a different way to live this holy and joyful life, other than joining the long commute and signing kids up for sports and surfing facebook and keeping up with the news that raises our heart rates, all sacrificing our family and our health because there’s too much to do.
Life does that to us every now and then, if we let it, if we’re paying attention. We usually aren’t asking for God to shake us up; but grief does that. Job change does that. Getting what we thought we wanted only to discover it’s not all that great – That shakes us up. Loss – of loved ones, of relationships, of identity, of health, of vitality – Loss does that. More than 25 people in this congregation have faced significant loss of loved ones and friends this past year. And something shakes loose, and the question starts niggling at us: What is this life for? Am I really living the life I want, the life God calls me to live? What really matters? Does how I spend my days, my time, my energy, my resources – line up with what I say really matters?
All Saints’ Sunday is an annual invitation to consider what really matters to us, and what changes might we make. Because in the midst of grief, we realize just how important love is. And because when we look ahead to next year, we don’t know who we will be missing then, or who will be missing us.
I mentioned to a non-Christian friend of mine that today was All Saints’ Sunday in church, and she quipped, “O, is that when you pretend everyone who’s died was a saint?” I just laughed, but didn’t try to explain it to her. This isn’t a day to celebrate how saintly our loved ones were, but a day to remember we’re all saints, like Zaccheus is a saint.
Because on this particular Sunday of the year, we come face to face with how temporary this all is. More than 25 people this year in this congregation know how true this is – As they’ve had to say goodbye to loved ones. Just like Jesus was just passing through Jericho, we’re just passing through this life – But just like Jesus stopped and saw Zaccheus, really saw him – And just like Zaccheus put himself in a place to know love – We’re called to do the same. To be Zaccheus – open hearted to how God’s love shows up, in the imperfect and the unsaintly. And to be Jesus, knowing we’re just passing through, but that seeing one another – Really seeing the hidden saint in even someone’s worst moments – That’s all that is left on this earth when our time here is ended.
We might miss it, all these thousands of years later, but Zaccheus was not well-liked. When Jesus spots him in the tree and insists that the right thing to do is go to Zaccheus’ house, well – The crowd started murmuring, wondering what Jesus was doing with a “sinner,” which meant someone despicable and detestable. It be like Jesus inviting himself to Bernie Madoff’s place.
But Jesus sees the saint in all of us – And invites us to see the saint in one another. All the people we love who have passed over this past year – Were they saints? In the sense of, were they perfectly “saintly?” Maybe, but probably not. But did their passing through our lives change us? Yes, most certainly.
We change each other. Will our interactions, our relationships with one another, be they momentary or decades-long, bring out the saint in us, in each other? Will we be ruined by love for an empty and meaningless pursuit of status, importance, wealth? Will we see each other – Really see each other, and be shaped by our faith in God’s love? As you come forward to lay your carnations before the God of love, who promises this life is not the end, consider these two things: How did the person who died change you? That is, how did they help you see the good in yourself, and help you look for the good in others? Our bodies pass away; our love through the power of God never dies. May it be so, in Christ.
Think about who you’ve lost – How did their love change you? How are you different because of knowing them, and losing them? How do they still influence your life, remind you how important it is to see the saint in every person?