If you really want to be noticed, you might have to go out on a limb.
On the Sunday before the Feast of All Saints, the church dishes up another reading about some cheating tax collector. On the Sunday before we will celebrate sainthood, the church gives us another Gospel about sinners. It’s no less a secret today than it was in the First Century that Jesus associated with the least righteous of his day. He dined with scandalous people. He socialized with bums and beggars, with infectious lepers, prostitutes, and my God, EVEN TAX COLLECTORS. It would appear from this blatant behavior on the part of our Lord that one does not become a disciple of Christ by avoiding sin and sinners.
Those of you who have been parents, and maybe those of you who have been children of parents, can recollect this familiar scenario. One of your children has a friend visiting, and they are playing on the living room floor. Mom is in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family when suddenly the whole routine is interrupted by two hopeful faces staring up at you with a question, Can my friend stay for dinner, oh please, please can he? You’re caught off guard. What are you supposed to do; send the child home?
No matter what your plans for dinner might be, sometimes a child’s innate sense of hospitality changes it all, doesn’t it? They invite friends over to play without notice. They invite all sorts of creatures to share their room. They seem devoted to leaving the front door wide open, and it takes parents years of committed effort to deprogram this reckless hospitality out of them. We don’t like hospitality to be too spontaneous. We like to leave our options open. We want to be able to parse out compassion and care as it is convenient. Too bad misery and want don’talways come conveniently.
I’m not going to rehash with you all the reasons tax collectors were hated in the first century, but it is important to note that Zacchaeus was not an ordinary tax collector, he was the Chief Tax Collector. That means he would have been one of the most hated men in the district. As a priest in the church for 37 years, you know that I must agree with the old adage YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYBODY. But I don’t think I could go on living if I had been the most hated person in my community, or if I was the most despised person in the churches where I served. I would certainly be the loneliest man in the community. I would certainly feel lost. I’m certain that my response would be to crawl in a hole somewhere. But Zacchaeus has one up on me. He didn’t crawl in a hole. He climbed up a tree; he went out on a limb. Despised, hated and rejected, this pathetic little man had the courage to seek the all-embracing love of God.
When one respected so highly, as Jesus, invites himself into the home of one so despised, a healing can’t help but take place. Jesus gives us a formula that can heal a broken world. ZACCHAEUS, COME DOWN! Do you see how this is just as powerful a command as the one made to the lame man at the pool of Bethseda when Jesus said: GET UP, TAKE UP YOUR PALLET AND WALK?
Do you realize that our Gospel story this week is a miracle story? Do you realize that the miracle of a changed life is just as spectacular as the miracle of the loaves and fishes or the stilling of the storm? I don’t think that we could ever overestimate the impact that such social mixing on the part of Jesus had upon the last, the lost, the least and the little. Jesus accepted them as friends and equals. Jesus made them feel clean and wholly acceptable in the sight of God. Christians are sinners who have the power to make other sinners feel holy!
If I were to ask anyone reading this if they know the Lord Jesus, I’ll bet most would say YES! But there is another question that is also a litmus test of our relationship with the Lord. DO YOU KNOW ZACCHAEUS?
Those two questions go together, for if you do it to the least of these you do it unto me.
Do you know Zacchaeus? He’s up in the trees all over town. He’s stretching his neck. He’s looking, searching and hoping, but in order for you to find him you need to look up! That’s the key. You can’t wait for him to fall out of the tree.YOU NEED TO LOOK FOR HIM. He might look quite good from the outside, with his pleasant smile and his nice clothes. Sometimes the inner ache never shows through. You have to look up!
A young man, who was thought to be quite happy and well adjusted, once wrote a letter that came as a real surprise. It was a cry for help to the pastor of his church. You might say that this letter was his way of climbing a tree. In it, he spoke of his inner emptiness, of his loneliness, and of the pain of feeling unloved. He closed his letter with this ending. Your’s truly, God’s only forgotten son! We all, on occasion, are given the opportunity to meet a forgotten son or daughter. Are we looking up to find them?
On Sunday, many of us will be participants in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the primary sacrament of healing. We will once again see Christ reaching out to the lost, to the Zacchaeus in you and me. As the bread is broken and the wine poured, we will be reminded that Christ’s brokenness, the brokenness of the Cross, is one with the brokenness of all creation. That should make us feel healed. But our celebration doesn’t end there.
Archbishop William Temple once said, The church is the only organization in the world that exists purely for the benefit of non members. As it turns out, the most important words in our liturgy are saved for the very last: “Go Forth.”
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