by Daniel Harrell
We’ve finally arrived at the last sermon on our Five Core Values as a church—ten sermons on five verbs discerned from a year of dedicated listening and prayer and seeking the will of the Lord. You should have them down by now: Welcome, Risk, Wrestle, Immerse and Do Good. While descriptive, these verbs should be read as imperatives too. We are welcome, beloved, but we also welcome like the Good Samaritan welcomed his enemy in need, one beloved by God. Risk together the messy path of faith like Ruth and Naomi, who amidst grief and a loss of social security, abandoned heritage and history to furiously trust God nonetheless. Wrestle with the tensions in God’s world and world like Peter wrestled when Cornelius came knocking—a Roman soldier and unclean outsider whom Christ somehow now declared clean, making what Peter thought to be unrighteousness righteous. Immerse in sacred spaces and rhythms—caught between an army and the deep Red Sea—immersion means a determination to worship the Lord and remember God’s faithful salvation—whether from slavery in Egypt of from slavery to our sin. Christ our passover was sacrificed for us, so we keep the feast and find power through the Spirit to do good for Christ’s sake.
Again, I give wholehearted thanks to our church leadership and staff, to our ReForming Visioning Team, to all of you for your prayers and input as a congregation, and to Jesus for whose sake we ever do anything that matters. I want to complement our amazing ministers and guest preacher, Marcus Halley, for their brilliant sermonic contributions to this ten-week endeavor. It would suffice for me to simply say “ditto” to Carter’s masterful sermon on “do good” last Sunday and just send you all home.
Then again, I appreciated the comment from one of you, wondering whether anybody really thinks ten sermons (no matter how excellent), or clever phrases printed on beautiful banners, could ever fully instill a set of values into a congregation of sinners. (I think her question was rhetorical.)
Last Tuesday was World Kindness Day. Who knew? I had to go back and check my calendar to see how I behaved. At my daughter’s school, each fifth grader was assigned to do an act of kindness in their class and then one more at home, tell a parent about it, and then have us sign off on a slip of paper. And with that the whole fifth grade was transformed. Then came Wednesday.
True transformation takes a lifetime and even then there’s no guarantee we will change. Carter recalled Luke’s earlier story of that certain rich ruler who’d followed all the rules since fifth grade. Now face to face with Jesus, there was only one thing he lacked: sell what he had, give the money to the poor and then come follow Jesus. Famously, and sadly, he just couldn’t do it. Jesus remarked it was easier to squeeze camels through needle eyes than to get a rich people into heaven—but hey, God can do anything.
Enter Zacchaeus, who’s not only rich, but filthy rich; a dirty lowlife of a chief tax collector, a sinner first class: a bureaucratic collaborator with the government against his own people, majoring in exploitation, graft and greed. Everybody hated him. Ironically, the name Zacchaeus means pure or innocent. His parents had had higher hopes.
His story is one of the most familiar in the Bible. A short guy scrambles up a tree to get a look at Jesus, the Superstar Healer and Preacher. Jesus sees Zacchaeus up a tree and invites him down, and then invites himself over for dinner. Everybody hated Zacchaeus, and now they aren’t so crazy about Jesus either. It’s the Prodigal Son parable played out in real time, with Zacchaeus in the starring role and the crowd playing the resentful older brother, ticked off at Jesus for showing grace to a guy who could never deserve it. Unlike with the Prodigal Son, with Zacchaeus we get to see what happened next. He turns over a new sycamore leaf and pledges to do what the rich young ruler did not: sell his possessions, give to the poor and pay back with penalty-plus all whom he’d cheated—a pledge that will require a radical lifestyle change and the rest of his life to fulfill. Jesus declares: “Salvation has sure come to this house!” And then to the disgruntled masses, “Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham too.” God loves everybody. And then lastly about himself, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
No doubt, the crowd would have preferred more of an Old Testament performance: a Judgment-Laden Jeremiah raining down doom on this scoundrel for all his hypocrisy and avaricious injustice. But Jesus will save his Jeremiah impersonation for when he finally gets to Jerusalem and walks into church.
Still, as the late Brazilian theologian, Vitor Westhelle, observed, most Bible translations fail to convey the sternness of Jesus’ remark to Zacchaeus. I must stay at your house was not a self-invitation or gesture of etiquette; but an imperative, a demand, and even a threat. It’s like when my mother would tell me I must wait until my father got home. Zacchaeus is described as one “short in stature”—but stature is a word as much about character as height. People of low character compensate by climbing—socially, economically and politically—seeking a higher status that will both cover up and create a diversion. The famous and the powerful get away with much more than the ordinary and weak. Zacchaeus scrambles up a sycamore because they are not hard to climb and provide leafy concealment. But Jesus promised, “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed.” You can’t impress Jesus and you can’t hide from him either.
Vitor Westhelle writes that “without exposure there is no repentance; without repentance, no grace; without grace, no transformation.” To repent comes from the Greek word meaning to change or to turn, but the Latin Bible translators chose a root that also meant to bow down, to be bent over by the weight of the pain we have caused. To repent is to be left without bargaining chips, bereft of defense or appeal, wholly and humbly dependent on Christ’s mercy.
Most commentators presume Jesus went home with Zacchaeus to eat a big Thanksgiving-like banquet—somewhere between verses 7 and 8—which would have meant a banquet as short as Zacchaeus himself. Having said grace and received it, followed by a lot of wine and rich food, Zack made his pledge; a precursor, perhaps, to modern-day, lavish, fund-raising banquets for the poor. Such would have been a much safer promise, “a relief valve for guilt,” as Carter called it, a big pledge made before guests duly impressed.
Except you can’t impress Jesus. Read the text and it says, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord…” which more likely means the base of the tree. What if Zacchaeus, exposed, crawled down from the tree, its own act of repentance, and in the bright of Jesus was made to confront all the people he’d cheated? The Reformers taught that repentance only happens once “terror strikes the conscience.” Zacchaeus comes down to meet his base stature. Right then and right there he soberly makes his pledge to do good—for Christ’s sake—for the sake of the One for whom mercy means resurrection. In the bright and harsh light of Christ, Zacchaeus—raised up—mans up, stands tall and makes right. He gets squeezed through a needle by Jesus who does the impossible. Salvation is in the house.
And not just in the house—but in the whole neighborhood. Jesus doesn’t tell Zacchaeus to sell everything and follow. In the long shadow of imperial Rome, Jericho desperately needed an ethical bureaucrat, someone to stand in the gap and advocate and apply fairness. Zacchaeus doesn’t give up being a tax collector—he becomes an honorable one. He became morally good at what he was good at.
To prosper is not a Biblical vice. Christian virtue promotes hard work, good stewardship, generosity of resources, creativity and passion for discovery, care for others and commitment to community—all of which can contribute to economic and social well-being. The issue in Scripture is not that God’s people prosper, but that in prospering they accrue a kind of power too comfortably abused. Blessings get treated as privilege and the poor get marginalized. Acquisition of status displaces generosity. Priorities bend to suit ourselves, joy evaporates from our work, our time becomes a commodity, our hearts harden to the needs of others. Our barns get so full we take grace for granted. And Jesus takes it all personally. “I tell you the truth,” he cautioned, “whatever you did not do for one of the least, you did not do for me.”
“Doing Good for Christ’s Sake” means seeing the people we serve as people we love. “For Christ’s sake” focuses our effort on relationship and restoration, on gospel power to reform and reconcile and raise up, even as we clothe and feed and care. At the same time, “for Christ’s sake” signals a kind of urgency and impatience. It’s not sufficient to preach sermons and make statements and give up an hour here and there to help out. While there are some things we can do better as whole congregations than as individuals—cooperation, the former does not absolve the latter. Sometimes it takes time to mobilize a whole church. But you can do good this afternoon if you want to.
Jesus rolled into Jerusalem and rolled over the Temple, putting on his best Jeremiah. He turned the tables on those who thought they could buy their way to goodness; on those who thought they could outsource doing good to church programs and charities, and then criticize the programs for not doing enough. “My house is to be a place of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves,” Jesus said. You’ve made my house into a sycamore tree. You exploit worship and prayer and programs for the poor as a means of keeping the poor and strangers out of you own houses. But remember, “whatever you did not do for one of the least, you did not do for me.” Hebrews 13:2- “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I worked for years with my church among the homeless in Boston without ever inviting a single poor person home to my house for supper—and as much as I love to cook. Many of us gladly served families in transition this week in our church as part of Families Moving Forward. As a church, we’ve helped out strangers for decades, treating them as friends and trying to ameliorate the economic disparity they suffer without ever solving it. We cooked and cleaned, played games with the kids and shared life over meals and conversations—doing our best to make their hardships not so hard. It’s complicated, I’m aware. And yet, as I went home to my own bed, I couldn’t help but feel like sometimes I could do more, but I don’t do it. I give myself a pass, as a pastor, since, as you realize, being a professional Christian is difficult enough.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This was Jesus’ first sermon in the Bible. A lot of people loved it—probably because it was so brief. But a lot of people hated it too. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ preached it at his home church and folks there came close to throwing him off a cliff. These days people just avoid sermons altogether. The Star-Tribune ran a front page article last Sunday about the unchurching of America. Increasingly people prefer meditation, walks in nature, reading The Star-Tribune or even running errands over hearing sermons like this. I get it. Who wants to come to see Jesus only to be seen and exposed and told to repent and feel miserable?
Except that when Zacchaeus sees Jesus and is seen by Jesus and has his own guilt exposed, he felt fantastic. We read he “hurried down and was happy—delighted, joyful and so glad—pick your translation. Zacchaeus comes down from the tree and meets his true stature, his character exposed for what it is. He’s understandably embarrassed, but like anyone finally freed from a long-hidden wrongdoing, he is also relieved and thankful and finally free to live out his calling. Salvation comes to his house. And not just to his house—but to the whole neighborhood and the whole region. Zacchaeus doesn’t stop being a tax collector. He becomes a good one—he stays where he is and becomes upright and virtuous, doing good where he’s at. Given that Zacchaeus was the chief, chances are Jericho became a much better and more equitable place. And because his story made the Bible, its impact is measureless. Vitor Westhelle compared Zacchaeus coming down from his tree to piercing a hole through a dam. One small hole is all it takes to bring everything down.
Who are all the Zacchaeuses who need to come down from their sycamores of privilege and power? We can point at corporations, at the government, the workplace, the suburb, the wealthy class, the nation and the church that needs to be challenged. But Jesus starts with one person. I must do likewise and start with myself.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” A lot of people loved that sermon. But a lot of people hated it. While Jesus’ home church failed to fling him off a cliff, the crowds will eventually get him. Jesus told sinners to come down from their trees, so they strung him up on one. To which the apostle Paul declared, “We preach Christ crucified, an obstacle to some and foolishness to others, but to those who are called, the cross is the power and wisdom of God.” At Jesus’ crucifixion, the gospel reports the Temple curtain tore in two. Many interpret this as an open invitation for all to enter God’s house. But I like to see it as God getting out of his house to where suffering happens and good needs to be done. The church at its best is the body of Christ in the world—bent over by repentance, but then raised up happily to do right and do good—all for Christ’s sake.