October 30, 2022, sermon preached by Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year C; Proper 26FB; 10.30.2022

Luke 19:1-10

            In last week’s gospel reading, I wondered out loud what it was that brought the Tax Collector to the proximity of the Temple to pray. What wasit that made him beat his chest and call out for mercy? Jesus had a soft spot in his heart, it seems for Tax Collectors. After all, one of his disciples ended his extorting and thieving tax collecting and risked it all to follow Jesus. Matthew is one of the most beloved apostles. And he was a Tax Collector.

            I prayed with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as I studied for this sermon about Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in the gospel story today. I imagined that Zacchaeus was in the crowd when Jesus told the parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee. He told the parable for those in the crowd, particularly for the religious elite who were self-righteous and contemptuous of others. The Pharisee had prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this Tax Collector…”

            The point of last week’s parable was that the man who stood before God begging for mercy received God’s forgiveness and amendment of life. When any of us go to God at our lowest and ask for mercy, we feel the burden lift. We feel lighter and have more capacity for joy. In 12-step work, there is the familiar slogan, “Let go and let God.” It’s not to be taken lightly when we have reached the bottom; when we finally let go of the self-righteousness, or steely control or feel down right lost. The whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is to save the lost.

            So, in my imagination, I see Zacchaeus, this short, overly dressed “mob boss” Chief Tax Collector-bully, listening to Jesus. Even before he climbed the sycamore tree, he is being compelled by what he hears as the truth of God’s mercy. And he wants to know more. He wants to get a good look at this teacher whose words cut right through his greed, evil and sin to the salvation of his lost soul.

He might have said to himself, “Let me climb out on this heavy sycamore branch and get a better look at the man who seems to have compassion for tax collectors and sinners. Let me see if I can really trust him. I think I kind of like this guy because he shows compassion for hated people and is being condemned for it….but let me just slip a little further out on the branch to get a better look.”

Just then, Jesus looks up and calls to him in the most public and friendly way. “Zacchaeus!” He called him by name. He KNEW Zacchaeus, so infamous was he! “Zacchaeus! Hurry up! Come down! For I MUST stay at your house today!” This encounter is light and playful. It’s dangerous, too, because it’s so public. After all, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem where he had been telling his followers he would die.

On the way, though, Jesus was intent on offering Zacchaeus the saving grace that comes of hospitality. He invited Zacchaeus to offer HIM hospitality. I had a friend who invited herself to my house after school all the time, and helped herself to whatever was in the frig or the kitchen cabinets. My grandmother used to complain and say, “Susie is so rude. I don’t like her. She helps herself.” And now I say, “What a form of hospitality we were offering to Susie! She’s like Jesus!”

Zacchaeus immediately acts on the joyful hospitality of Jesus. Without being prompted Zacchaeus began immediately to re-distribute his wealth. First, he made restitution to those he cheated. Then, he gave half of his vast wealth to help poor people. He didn’t do it to look righteous. He did it because he found a new life and a compassionate and merciful friend. He was making amendment of life, and the freedom he experienced brought him new-found generosity.

            We don’t know exactly what caused Zacchaeus this dramatic amendment of life. Maybe he had reached the bottom because theft and extortion emptied his soul.  Maybe he couldn’t tolerate being hated so completely by so many people. Maybe the riches and power lost their luster and he wanted more meaning. Maybe that one poor widow he extorted funds from exposed his shame.

One thing we do know is what causes uspain and prompts us to return to God again and again asking for mercy. I remember going on retreat in Richmond, Virginia a few months after John died. I was furious that John and I had followed God’s call faithfully. We had nurtured our marriage and lived modestly. And what did I get? John’s death.

Last week I was speaking with my spiritual director about this time of anger in my life. I was so angry with God about John’s death that I was at a crossroads in my relationship with God.  I’ve shared with you about this crossroads: “On this road, I will live without you, God, because you have let me down. And on this road, I will stay with, you, God, because being with you is what I know.” I decided to stay with God – the One I know. My spiritual director asked me what that felt like – to stay with God. I said, “It felt like sitting in warm mud.”  He laughed and so did I because “sitting in warm mud” is an image both of humility and of new birth.

Like in the book of Genesis, this kind of new birth hearkens back to being “born of the dust” like the “Let Go and Let God” slogan. Surrender to God and be reborn.

This theme of Zacchaeus’ conversion and newfound generosity is not lost on me as we share our stories of God’s abundance this Stewardship season. No, we aren’t the Zacchaeus figure. And this is not a call to examine our sinful, human nature. It’s not a call to be pressured or to create guilt or a duty to give financially to God for our mission and ministries of St. Paul’s. It is a response to joining Jesus in a joyful, almost childlike response to the liberating mercy of God.

            Giving to God prompts us to reach beyond ourselves into the community and spread Christ’s joy and generosity and mercy to the Brunswick community and beyond. I visited the Mid Coast Presbyterian Pumpkin Patch yesterday to buy my pumpkins for Halloween tomorrow. The man who took my money and helped me carry them to the car asked me what church I pastored. I told him St. Paul’s. He said, “Oh, I’m in Andrea and Peter’s Sacred Ground circle. I have learned so much from the readings and conversation in my small group that I’m now reading more and more books about racism.” He said, “I read ‘The New Jim Crow’ about mass incarceration, and I sent it to my lawyer brother to read. He read it and said he’d wished his Yale Law class had studied that book.” Without hesitation, these men, both white, professional and retired said, “We are keenly aware of racism, and we are now in need of repenting mass incarceration of people of color.”

            By the work of Sacred Ground, this conversation was possible. By the work of Jesus in our lives, we have the freedom to move from the places where we are stuck and sinful and broken to repenting and receiving God’s mercy. I can’t imagine having decided to go on in this life without God. And for the freedom and mercy God gives me, I give back with joy and invite you to do the same.