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    Oct 30, 2016

    To Whom We Belong

    To Whom We Belong

    Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Timothy Fulop, Ph.D.

    Category: Love

    Keywords: forgiving, loving, welcoming

    Maybe we are all complicated people, maybe there are no “they” and “us,” but just “us”—all who stand before God in the need of grace and forgiveness, but standing before a God who acts first, who reaches out to us first, who loves us first and proclaims in the most unlikely places before the most unlikely people, “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 save the lost.”

    There are favorite Bible stories. Stories that many of us learned to music and maybe even hand motions. The story of Zacchaeus is one such favorite for it has a rather fun, direct and even cartoonish nature to it. The story moves quickly with great energy with Zacchaeus, the short guy with puck who refuses to have his view blocked and so runs ahead and climbs a tree to be noticed while peeking out from beneath the leaves. What kid hasn’t ever felt small or out of it and ends up, instead, being the center of attention?

    But Luke didn't write it to be a fun story fit for a catchy song. Rather, I think he included it because it captures the essence of what happens and continues to happen around this Jesus of Nazareth. And Zacchaeus was one of those people that Jesus liked to be around. The truth is that Jesus spent most of his time with people most "church folk” would probably be uncomfortable with—people who seemed slightly demented in their behavior, or the social misfits or the ne'er-do-wells—that portion of the population that usually do not get invited to meals or has the “do-wells” visit their homes.

    Now, Zacchaeus was rich, but not because he did something respectable, but because he was a tax-collector, and not just a tax collector, but the “chief tax collector.” In the TV show, The Sopranos, he would not just be one of the “made guys,” but he would be Tony, the crime boss, the guy at the top of the heap who not only was extorting money from innocent people and businesses, but the boss who was skimming off the top of those who were skimming others. There probably wasn't a more unsavory person in Jericho.

    So, when the famous rabbi from Nazareth came through town, the one renown for preaching a vision of God's reign and God’s peace—shaking up the rich in order to take care of the poor—the people of Jericho could hardly wait to hear what he was going to say to that crime boss, Zacchaeus. “Give 'em hell preacher! Blast him for his evil like Isaiah used to do! Tell him you have had enough of his sleaze and phony piety” they probably said as Jesus mounted his soap-box about to launch into his message for the locals. "Tell him to cease to do evil and learn to do good, call fire down on him like ‘ole Sodom and Gomorrah, throw him in jail, or send him packing and rebuild the walls of Jericho to keep out the likes of him!"

    The odd thing is that Zacchaeus actually wanted a ring-side seat to what could have been his own tar and feathering—it was probably a better choice to lay low and out of sight for once. But he was so drawn to Jesus that he does not let anything stop him. Was he just curious or bored on a hot lazy day? Or did he have a death wish? Or maybe Zacchaeus had heard the rumors that Jesus liked to hang around unsavory types like him—a different kind of rabbi who likes to yuck it up over food and drink with prostitutes and tax collectors? This he had to see so he climbed a sycamore tree.

    It was then that Jesus spotted him, maybe dangling there over a limb, looking ridiculous and desperate to get a view. "Zacchaeus," said Jesus, "hurry up and get down for I am coming to your house as your guest!" Luke doesn't say whether Zacchaeus climbed down out of the tree or just fell out—the latter seems fitting as he was probably astonished by Jesus’ attention. In any case, that's when things got really quiet. The good people of Jericho started to grumble and snicker and complain about Jesus’ choice of company. “For a smart young preacher, he sure doesn't know much about people!” they laughed. Others stated, “He can't be serious! There isn't a bigger crook in town! This is a scandal.”

    What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say to them, but the way he said it. It is one thing to believe in and talk about loving your neighbor, and welcoming the lost, and forgiving the guilty; but it is another thing to practice what you preach, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Sure, people can be reformed, people can change, but we know that is rare. Sure, once in a while there is a Zacchaeus who sees the light, goes from bad to good, and we can hold him as a morality tale to keep the kids in line, but there aren’t too many Zacchaeus’s out there.

    And like the pious Jews who made a habit of labeling people at the time of Jesus in order to define the boundaries of what was important to them, and who is in and who is out, it wasn't long before Christians adopted the same type of labeling people, and making sure that only people of good moral character and impeccable credentials could be welcomed into the church.

    Christians had a vested interest in making the church look respectable once it had gained the acceptance of the surrounding culture. This is why some of the parables of Jesus, like the story of the man who had two sons, and the stories of about Jesus with unsavory people like the woman caught committing adultery can feel awkwardly about “those people.”

    The story of Zacchaeus was another such story, enough to make some scholars wonder whether the part about Zacchaeus offering to pay back four times whatever he had stolen from people was a later addition in order to soften the blow, as if Jesus' acceptance depended upon Zacchaeus' act of contrition. And note that the Greek is translated in the future tense, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor”—bad guy confronted by the prophet, repents and reforms, and promises to make things right in the future.

    But the Greek is actually in the present tense—it should be “Look, half of my possessions I have already been giving to the poor.” Maybe Zacchaeus is complicated, maybe he is a bad dude who is not that rotten, maybe God is already at work in the most surprising ways in the most surprising people. And maybe we are all complicated people, maybe there are no “they” and “us,” but just “us”—all who stand before God in the need of grace and forgiveness, but standing before a God who acts first, who reaches out to us first, who loves us first and proclaims in the most unlikely places before the most unlikely people, “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 save the lost.” Sure, the prophets speak out against evil, but notice how quickly the shift is to “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

    It's all part of the story which theologians call salvation history, but what could also be called the continuing scandal and lunacy of a God who is crazy about us—all of us, from foolish Adam and Eve; Jacob, the con-man; Rahab, the prostitute; David, the philanderer and murderer; James and John, the glory seekers; Peter, the big-mouthed coward; to Zacchaeus and you and me. God claims all of them and all of us as God’s saints.

    God treasured them, and treasures us, not so much because of what we are or what we may become but because we belong to God. As James Farwell states in his little book The Liturgy Explained, “we are always taking the second step in an unfolding narrative of love’s emergence...it is…God who first loves, who is love, and we whose love is first awakened and focused by the love we have received.” So, when we come to the Table, we take the second step in gratitude for what God has done for us, coming to live into God’s work, God’s liturgy for us. Just as quirky Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus, we all come to the table to see Jesus, to feed on Jesus, and to become more like Jesus so we can be his body in service to this world.

    In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

    Readings: (Proper 26 - Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-82; Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10)