November 3, 2013 – All Saints Sunday

Pentecost 24    November 3, 2013   Luke 19:1-10   For all the saints

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Happy All Saints Sunday, saints of the Lord.  In ancient Christian tradition, all believers in Jesus are called saints. Which can be kind of a strange concept, if we’re used to thinking of saints as Capitol S saints who do certifiable miracles. But all believers regarded as small s saints is actually the older tradition.

All Saints Day comes at an intersection of traditions, right after Halloween every year, while we’re still thinking of folks dressing up in strange costumes and masks – a tradition with religious roots – especially the Jewish festival of Purim, where people celebrate Queen Esther’s triumph over an evil empire by dressing in silly costumes and acting like kids. And St Luke’s perhaps envisioning a Purim costume party in the background today, as he tells a story of Jesus and a small man who sure looks to be a sinner, acting surprisingly saintly. (Listen for the word.)

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “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 to save the lost.”

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Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he–

he climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree – and he said –

Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m coming to your house today.

I really like this story of a wee little guy up a tree for Jesus. Back when I was a little boy I liked to climb trees to get away from it all, and get another view of the world from higher ground. So I can relate.

Zacchaeus was a short little guy – short in height and short in stature – way-low-down-on-the-social-totem-pole.  As a chief tax collector, working for Rome, Zack was rich (in a filthy-rich-kind-of-way) from his job of exploiting his neighbors, taxing-‘em-to-the-maximum on behalf of the Roman colonial government that ruled Israel with an iron hand. Like a colonial American tax man working for King George, Zack was way over on the wrong end of the taxation-without-representation-spectrum.

Yet here’s small Zacchaeus, a certifiable bad guy– climbing a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Making quite a study in contrasts – since, just last week we were looking at another rich man in Luke’s gospel who wanted to see Jesus. (And–) If Hollywood was scripting Luke’s gospel, that other rich guy would probably be good-looking in a Bing Crosby-kind-of- way, while Zack would be small and not-so-good-looking. He’d be the guy in the black hat if this was an old-time Western.

That first wealthy man, who comes on stage in chapter 18 would be the white hat guy according to central casting – a good religious man who keeps all the commandments. And his “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”question to Jesus sure sounds like he’s asking the right thing from the right person. But Jesus answers by reminding him of some of the big ten commandments, all related thematically to love of neighbor – and its as if Jesus is asking, “how are you doing with loving your neighbors as yourself?”

But the man doesn’t get the hint or see the opportunity for confession or the need for improvement – and he just says, “I’ve done all those commandments since I was a child.” And Jesus, seeing this man is in denial about his wealth-and-power issues – tests him with a call to leave all and follow – and the episode ends poorly, with the man going away in sorrow.

Now here comes rich man #2, Zacchaeus,  just a few short verses later, as Jesus and followers enter Jericho. Our soundtrack shifts to an instrumental of Joshua fit the battle of Jericho… Since we are coming into Jericho, and the name Jesus in Aramaic is Joshua in Hebrew. And in the book of Joshua there’s another black-hatted saint (black-skirted saint, actually), Rahab, the prostitute, who welcomed Hebrew spies and helped them escape. Matthew, Hebrews, and James all name Rahab as a sainted ancestor of old.

And like saint Rahab, at first glance Zacchaeus also seems an unlikely saint. As chief tax collector, he supervises a large crew of tax men, working for Rome, the enemy occupation government. The Roman tax system ran on entrepreneurial greed, with tax collectors working on commission, keeping a percentage of what they collected, licensed by Rome, accountable to Rome, with the power of Rome behind them. And what an unlikely candidate for sainthood we’ve got today in this little rich man, who, in the eyes of his neighbors may as well be wearing a robber’s mask.

Yet looks can be deceiving. For some reason, which maybe only God knows,  Zacchaeus, really wants to see Jesus. Which is going to take some work. Because short Zack is too small to see over the crowds, and held in such low community esteem that nobody’s going to move for him to see. But Zack wants to see badly enough to risk looking really foolish. So he climbs up a sycamore tree – like a little lost child, instinctively understanding, perhaps, this Jesus guy can help him find his way home, out of the mess his life has become. So he’s climbing higher, going further out on a limb, to get a look at Jesus, and see who this Jesus guy really is.

Yet it’s Jesus who sees him first – and sees him as he is.  It’s Jesus who greets him and invites himself to Zack’s house for lunch, saying, Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m coming to your house today.

People grumble of course, about Jesus having lunch with this sinner. (People do like to go tut-tut-tut about other people we consider sinners.) But Jesus knows our true identities, and Jesus isn’t influenced by what people say. And lo and behold, now, when he sees and hears Jesus – here’s Zack, saying, “Here and now, Lord, I give half what I’ve got to the poor; and if I’ve wronged or robbed anybody, I’ll repay them four-times over.”

Zacchaeus  knows that the law of Moses calls for four-fold reparations and repayment for theft (Exodus 22). St Zack’s willing to accept and name the fact that he has stolen – probably the obvious theft John the Baptist warns tax collectors against back in Luke chapter 3, and almost for sure the other kind of theft John the Baptist and many prophets and saints of old warn against – having more than enough, yet not sharing with those in need.

Jesus sees Zack up in the tree. And Zacchaeus sees and hears Jesus. And this is enough to convince him of his need to make enormous changes in his life in response to the grace he sees in Jesus.

And maybe it’s because of their different circumstances, or the different ways they approach Jesus, but for whatever reason – Jesus doesn’t tell Zacchaeus that he’s got to give it all away, as he told that other rich guy a chapter earlier.

Though quite possibly St Zacchaeus is not going to be rich much longer – after giving half his fortune to the poor, and repaying everyone cheated along the way, he’ll probably be rich no more. And I really don’t think he’ll stay long in his old day job – any more than his colleague Levi the tax collector, who left all back in chapter 5 to follow Jesus – any more than Jericho home-girl Rahab, back when. When we experience the grace of God, changes start happening in our lives.

We don’t know the details of the rest of the Zacchaeus story – though we do know Zacchaeus is willing to give a lot, and share a lot, for the joy of knowing Jesus.

And ever since Zacchaeus has been a poster-child for what small-s-sainthood looks like. And the more we look to saint Zacchaeus, the more we realize – sainthood is really about looking to Jesus.  Looking to Jesus – and seeing Jesus, looking to us.

St Zacchaeus climbs a tree, looking for Jesus. But it’s Jesus who sees Zack first.

Zack goes out on a limb for Jesus – but Jesus goes way further out on many a much longer limb for us.

And where the world sees just a darkly-costumed low-life sinner of a tax collector – Jesus sees saint Zack. Jesus sees through the tax collector’s mask and costume to little saint Zacchaeus underneath.

And the invitation Jesus gives Zacchaeus is the same invitation he gives us all. The invitation to invite Jesus deeper into our lives, our homes, our communities – the invitation to keep looking to Jesus and getting to know him better and better.

(It’s not about inviting Jesus to know us better, since he knows all of us, perfectly, already. Jesus knows we’re all saints and sinners, simultaneously, underneath all the masks and costumes we wear to hide our true selves.)

Jesus sees through all our sin, all our illusions, all our stuff – sees through all our costumes and masks – to the saint within – struggling at times to get out of costume, and really shine.

Jesus invites himself into our lives to reveal our true identities – as children of God and saints of God.

Jesus invites us to rejoice with him in who we really are –

Because of Who He really Is.

And if we’re willing to keep looking to Jesus –

Jesus will always be looking to us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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