A sermon given at Colonial Church on April 19, 2020. You can listen to the sermon below or watch the whole service on YouTube.
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
– Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)
Good morning! My name is Sara and I’m so glad to be able to be here with you in worship today. This morning as we enter our new series this Easter season, “Grace, Actually,” we invite you to journey with us from now until Pentecost, as we both look for the risen Christ and also seek the work of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our world.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, risen Christ, on this day may you meet us: that we might know your grace; that we might know your love; that we might be your people, and indeed be the church in the world. God, grant us wisdom so that even as we are distributed and watching from our homes, that you oh God, by your Spirit might meet us, that we might live in your love and be your witnesses to a kingdom that comes by spirit and by love. For it’s in Christ’s name that we gather and we pray.
In some ways it seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in other ways it feels like it was just yesterday that I had a wonderful evening gathered together with women in our Gratitude Bible Study here in this very room around this very fire (if you know anything about me, you know that I love a good fire). Together we talked about Scripture and about what it means to be people of gratitude who live our lives in response to God’s grace.
Later that evening, as a good millennial, I went on Twitter and I tweeted Diana Butler Bass, the author of the book that we’ve been journeying with, and let her know something that seemed wonderful and profound in the midst of our conversation earlier that night. Much to my delight, she tweeted me back! I was feeling pretty cool, really grateful, indeed. That was on Monday.
By Thursday of that very same week, in the midst of the afternoon gathering with the moderators and Jeff Lindsay and myself, it became clear that the coronavirus was going to begin deeply touching our lives here in Minnesota. We knew that we were going to have to pivot to discern how we could be church in this time — that we could still do community and be the church in view of a global pandemic.
And so we immediately began putting things in place so we could Zoom our gatherings and could go online for services. We are so grateful for the ways that we, our community distributed, have been able to gather for prayer, for worship, and for study. And if you haven’t yet forayed into these online gathering spaces, we invite you to join us. I love and am so grateful for these times to be together.
Suffice it to say that I’ve never wanted to hug my computer more than I have in the last few weeks! Just seeing people other than Andy Garbers, who I love, and my dog Blue, is a gift. So when our study re-gathered the next Monday via Zoom to journey further into this book about gratitude, that evening I so clearly knew what I wanted to bring forward to preach about in the midst of this, our new sermon series called “Grace, Actually.”
The connection between grace and gratitude and being a people who are able to receive grace — to notice it all around us, and then to live our lives in response — is a connection that is symbiotic.
So today I wanted us to spend some time with a story that some of you know, some of you don’t, to hear it anew and afresh…to consider how in this time of a global pandemic we can continue becoming more of the people that Christ invites us to be in the world. What does it mean to be a people who live in grace, who breathe God’s Spirit and who then say, “Grace actually changes us. Grace actually invites us to breathe. Grace actually reminds us that we have our daily bread even when it doesn’t feel like that.”
So… welcome to our sermon series from now through Pentecost called: “Grace, Actually.”
Today, let’s consider how “Grace Actually Sees.”
When I was a little girl at my grandma’s house, I had a Zacchaeus doll. It was a flip story doll that had parts of the story written on a two-circle-head snowperson-like Zacchaeus figure.
I learned the song about Zacchaeus just like any good kid who knows the Zacchaeus song – “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree the good Lord for to see. And along comes Jesus and he says, ‘Hey, Zacchaeus. I’m coming to your house today.’” And so indeed Zacchaeus comes down… yada yada…you know the rest of the story as was read for our scripture passage today.
Now, even when I was a kid and I heard this story I felt bad for Zacchaeus because I thought… “oh, he was short and stuff.” And there’s nothing worse than being a short guy, right (I guess this is what I learned when I was a kid). And honestly, I think that’s been my interpretation of this text for the majority of my life — poor Zacchaeus he was hated because he was a sinner and a tax collector. I don’t really know what’s so bad about that, but I guess he was short and that was a problem? And so Jesus sees him one day and says, “Come on down.” And everyone’s real mad. And then Jesus is like, “It’s all okay”. And it is…so it’s a good story: Jesus loves people. Jesus loves even short tax collectors. Okay, I got it!
So here we I am in the midst of this gratitude study with a wonderful group of women who are now gathered together as a community on Zoom talking about gratitude. And we come to the point in Diana Butler Bass’ book Grateful when she revisits the Zacchaeus story and invites us to see it in the midst of God’s economy of grace—arguing how grace actually changes us and the way that we live our lives and the way that we’re able to be the church and to show up in the world.
So in conversation with her work on this text I want to share a little bit about how we might think about the story of Zacchaeus. In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that so much of what the people of Israel longed for in the promised Messiah was political freedom because most of the history of the people of Israel they was lived in cyclical cycles of oppression.
Whether we go way back to the story of the God who heard the cries of God’s people when they were enslaved in Egypt and brought them out of that land into the promised land and freedom, or the stories we know of how when the people were in the promised land and they had forgotten the God who saved them and forgotten their role as the people of God in the land and they again experienced enslavement at the hands of the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire…this was a story of a people who knew oppression and longed for freedom in all of its forms.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there because by the time we get to Jesus’ time, the Jewish people are living under Roman occupation. And in this environment they were an enslaved people, they were oppressed, they didn’t have the same rights as the Romans, and this is the context into which Jesus is born. If you want to hear more about this story, you can just revisit our previous sermons on Facebook or YouTube streams to hear more context about these weeks leading up to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
On Palm Sunday, when the people experienced Jesus entering the city, it is clear that they think his coming will be the triumphant moment when God and the promised Messiah will save them in every single way…because inside of Jewish thinking, the way salvation comes, Shalom, God’s peace, it comes as a holistic salvation that frees us spiritually, politically, and psychologically so that we can live as God’s people.
They are longing for Shalom-salvation.
As an oppressed people they had been crying out to God saying, “God, do you not hear us? Will you not save us?” And they’ve heard rumblings of this radical man who feeds the many, walks on water, performs miracles, and heals those outcasts by society. And you’ve got to think so many of them are exclaiming, “This is the guy! This is the Messiah! Did you hear? Do you know? He’s coming to Jerusalem. Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and they lay down their palm branches (scholars think that palm branches were a symbol of the Maccabean rebellion and any depictions of palm branches were a signal to let people know, “The revolution is coming!”). They think Jesus is going to overthrow the Roman Empire through political revolution and bring them freedom.
Now, of course Jesus is all about the revolution. It’s just not the kind that they (or we) think it’s going to be, right? Because the way that Jesus shows up and the way God’s kingdom works is that it doesn’t function according to the normative power politics of our world (right? Jesus comes on a donkey, not a war horse), which in some ways isn’t that different today from back in the day during the Roman Empire. We too so often look for Jesus in power and political revolution that we recognize as such, but God’s kingdom works differently than that. Its revolution comes by Spirit and brings true shalom-salvation.
Back to our story: in comes Jesus and the streets –in the middle of this passage in Luke 19– the streets are lined with people. These people are probably thinking, “Hey, I want to get out and get a glimpse of this guy who I’ve heard about!” Some of them are longing for the revolution. Some of them probably think, “Oh no, is this guy going to cause problems? Will he disrupt the peace?” We don’t know all of the reasons people came, but we know they did come to see who this Jesus was.
And in this moment, as Jesus is going down the road with all of the people thronging him, he looks up and, the text tells us, he sees this man –a tax collector– a man named Zacchaeus, and he invites him to come down from his tree as Jesus declares he’s going to go to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner.
Let’s talk a little bit about being a tax collector during this time. Now as it turns out, being a “tax collector” and “sinner” are indeed made synonymous here in Luke 19, but to understand a little bit more about what this means invites us to think again about the context. Imagine: you’re a people who are oppressed under the Roman Empire. You are poor. You’re probably struggling. You don’t have the same rights as your Roman overlords, right? And then one from amongst you decides he wants to get ahead a little bit because he knows what it is to be a person who’s oppressed and so he becomes a tax collector…because as a tax collector, you can take some money off the top from the people who give their taxes to the Roman Empire.
And then the Romans also know that you’re going to skim some off the top, so you’re distrusted by the Romans because you’re not actually Roman, you’re Jewish, so you’re not equivalent to them. But you’re also hated by your own people because you betrayed them to the occupying nation. So this Zacchaeus is a man who represents a class of people who are despised by everyone.
You know, sometimes when I read the Bible, it’s easy to get judgy about why people make their decisions. So I’ll be reading along and think, “If I were Peter in the boat, I’d totally get out, go on the water and be like, ‘Hi, Jesus. I see you. I’m totally cool.’” Yet the reality is that the people in the Bible are just like you and me – they are real people, people who are doing the best that they can, people who are afraid, people who don’t know what will happen, people who don’t know what will occur when they go out to get groceries, right? People who maybe have been locked in their homes for fear, people who are longing for a different life or world and aren’t sure if it will come. And so when I rehear this story of Zacchaeus, I feel a lot of empathy for him.
He has good reasons for becoming a tax collector. Who wants to waste away in poverty? Who wants their family to not have enough to eat? I don’t. And so he does what he can to try to get ahead, to try to make sure he’s going to be okay in the midst of an economy and a world which didn’t have enough for him.
We don’t know why he comes to see Jesus. We know he can’t see because he was short. But he is also thinking about that sycamore tree and climbing — that’s something he’d probably been doing his whole life. He’d been finding ways to climb out from the mire of the people who were all just waiting and longing for freedom and salvation from God. And he climbs up because he’s going to get his and then Jesus sees him and says, “Come on down!”
Have you ever been in that place where you have really good reasons for being the way that you are? You have reasons that you learned from growing up: that there wasn’t enough for you, that you couldn’t actually be who you are… and suddenly, you’re seen by Jesus and you know you can open your hands and surrender and just trust. I know I’ve learned this again and again. For me in my own story it’s about how I learned to be a good girl and be good at school and strive as hard as I could to be perfect.
But then–again and again I hear God’s Spirit through Christ saying to me up in my little tree that I’ve learned to climb because of all the ways I’ve been made to feel short or less than, “Sara, come down, sweetie. Breathe and know that there is enough. I’m here to save you.”
And here is part of what I love about this story of Zacchaeus — you’ve got to believe that most of the people lining those streets, as Luke reminds us, weren’t particularly happy that Jesus sees him and invites himself to dinner at his house, right? Zacchaeus is that rich dude. He oppresses us and he’s terrible. He’s sold out to the empire. He doesn’t deserve being chosen by the one whose supposed to bring the revolution.
But Jesus doesn’t respond that way. He refuses the political engagement of his time just like he does in ours. He embodies a different way…where we don’t just get to name call each other and pretend that some of us are outside of God’s grace, because the grace of God, going back through the entire Scriptures, is the God of El Roi, the God who sees. And grace sees every single one of us and says there is a place in God’s kingdom for each of us to experience and know grace, actually.
If you just flip back a little bit in the book of Luke, you’ll see that there was the story of the rich young ruler who went away sad because he didn’t think that he could live the way that Jesus was inviting him to. And yet the next story we hear is the story of another rich person, who through being seen by Jesus, is brought into a place where he is part of the kingdom. He reawakens to the fact that this God has always seen him. And Jesus comes to his dinner table. And it’s through that table fellowship of sitting over a meal that his life is changed and transformed.
I wonder about this for us. Our own anxieties and fears get triggered in times of global pandemics — and if you have no anxiety, then God bless you because some of this is really hard. I wonder, in this time, how can we be a people who instead of living out of those places of fear and scarcity, live our lives more deeply in alignment with the God who sees, with the God whose economy is one of grace, one where there is enough at this table from which each of us might partake, where rich and poor and strong and weak and all of us in between are invited to come down from our trees or to rise up from the streets where we shake our fists and to find ourselves together at one banquet table with the God of all things…who in Christ extends the grace that sees us?
My friends, in this time, as you notice your own fear and the anxiety your feeling or the ways you’re climbing some trees for good reasons, may we be a people who open our hearts to be seen by this grace and this love of God in Christ. And as we are seen, may we then be a people who see one another, who seek to be the church, to join with others in doing good for Christ’s sake, and to loving in the same way that Jesus has loved, bringing a kingdom with grace enough for everyone.
Grace for today, grace for tomorrow. There is grace enough, my friends.
May the God who sees, see you and may you know that you are seen.
Go in that peace and in that love and that grace, for Grace Actually Sees.