Gracious God, we thank you for your ever-present love in our lives and for the opportunity to share your love with our neighbors. With grateful and open hearts, may we listen for your call to discipleship and message of hope to us this day. Amen.
Today, we’re considering the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy chief tax collector from the city of Jericho (just down the mountain road from Jerusalem), and how his life was transformed when Jesus came to town.
The gospels contain so many stories of the connections Jesus made with all sorts of people in the relatively short span of his public ministry. And in Luke’s gospel, this is the last of these encounters before Jesus makes his final journey into Jerusalem. He’s already been ridiculed by some as “a friend to tax collectors and sinners” and here we have one more opportunity in which he demonstrates his commitment to befriending, teaching, healing, and reaching out to those on the fringes of society, the poor, the outcasts, and the unpopular.
Zacchaeus falls into that last category. He was a rich man and probably had a stable life. But he was despised by his Jewish peers. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus worked for the Roman Empire. As part of his deal with Rome, he probably had to pay the prescribed taxes for his region up front. And then he had to hire other tax collectors to help him collect from the public. Any profit he and the others made would have had to be added on top of what he already paid to the Romans. So, as you can imagine, this system was open to abuse. There were no fixed rates or regulations. Any tax collector could make up his own fees.
And so, we can understand why people weren’t crazy about Zacchaeus. He was seen by many as a traitor who exploited his people. And yet he’s the one who captures Jesus’ attention when he travels through Jericho. No wonder the crowd grumbled.
But I love Zacchaeus’ enthusiasm. It’s pretty cute and funny, actually, how this wealthy business man gets all “fan boy” excited over Jesus and climbs into a tree to get a glimpse of him.
And I can imagine Jesus even giggling a little, asking “who’s that guy up in the tree?” “Oh, that’s Zacchaeus… a tax collector.” “Ah… Zacchaeus, come on down, I’m going to your house today.” Jesus clearly saw an opportunity there. Despite what the crowd said, perhaps Jesus saw that Zacchaeus’ heart was already open.
And Zacchaeus is open to change. Right there, he promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay those he’s exploited four-fold. And I like to believe he followed through on his word. Not all of Jesus’ encounters with the rich and powerful in Luke’s gospel turn out as well. But Zacchaeus is a success story. His is a story of redemption and finding a new path forward.
Over and over the gospels make the claim that the Kingdom of God is at hand; that God is doing a new thing today; that deliverance, redemption, and salvation are happening right here, right now, today. Jesus says so to Zacchaeus, “today salvation has come to this house.” And he reminds the crowd that Zacchaeus too is a “son of Abraham.” The crowd may wish to dismiss him, but Jesus brings him back into the family because he is on a mission to “seek out and save the lost.”
And the truth is that we all get lost from time to time. And Zacchaeus’ story is a testament to what can happen when we get found; when we are offered forgiveness, given a word of affirmation and encouragement, given an opportunity to change and grow. Redemption and transformation can happen. The Holy Spirit is at work. And the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God’s love, justice, and peace, can grow deeper and broader in our midst. Salvation can come to our house today.
The crowd seems to have lost their desire or ability to connect with someone like Zacchaeus. But Jesus shows them that it is possible.
We can get caught in a pessimistic state of mind sometimes and think people never change, they don’t have the ability or desire to do so; or that we’re stuck with all the woes of the world and there is nothing we can do about it. So, we might as well just disconnect, or numb ourselves to it, or complain about it.
But Zacchaeus’ story shows us another way. The crowd’s grumbling didn’t help anything. But Jesus’ reaching out and connecting with Zacchaeus did. That connection not only changed Zacchaeus’ life, but the lives of those in his community as well – those he’d wronged, those he’d alienated.
I think this story challenges us to ask how we might reach out more (not only to those we have personally hurt or been hurt by, but more generally too). This story also challenges us to curb our own grumbling when it bubbles up and instead focus on bridge-building, connecting with others, and forging new relationships in our communities.
And, of course, we have to have willing community partners for this to be possible. Perhaps Jesus’ ability to connect with Zacchaeus made it possible for Zacchaeus to connect with those he had wronged and make things right. And, likewise, perhaps at least some in the crowd who had been wronged by Zacchaeus might have been moved by his repentance, his desire to change, and the actions his took to make things right.
I’d like to hope that some community healing and reconciliation took place as a result of this. And it is important to remember that both Jesus’ willingness to reach out and Zacchaeus’ willingness to repent and change were necessary for such healing to be possible, as was the crowd’s receptivity and willingness to keep up this work of relationship repair and community building.
Truthfully, I think community healing was as important to Jesus as individual healing. In almost all of the healing and redemption stories in the gospels there is a communal dimension. When a person is healed, they are not only physically and spiritually restored, but they are also able to reconnect with their community, they are socially restored as well.
This hopeful vision of wellbeing and right relationship on a social and societal level is a key part of the good news. This is the vision of the Kingdom of God on earth. So, how do we keep building these kingdom connections? And how do we keep up the work of community healing when that is what is needed?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of building new connections and deeper community across cultural differences. This is something we’ve been pondering in our Dialogues on Race class this fall. But it is also something I’ve been thinking about more broadly too. How do we bring people together? How do we find a common sense of purpose? How do we help create safe space for people of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds to spend time together and have meaningful interactions? How do we bring older people and younger people together to learn from and with one another? How do we overcome some of the economic divides in our culture and work together towards a more sustainable and just future where everyone has enough? How do we make friends and build community with folks who are outside of our comfortable social circles?
These are big challenges for our society, for our communities, for our political institutions, and they are challenges for the church too. In fact, I think the future of Christian faith depends in part upon our ability to forge new relationships within and among our various congregations and in our communities. And it’s not about growing our church just for the sake of maintaining the institution we’ve built. It’s about faithfully living into our calling to a life of discipleship in community. It’s about living toward that vision of the Kingdom of God. That’s what church at its best has always been about.
And, though at times this challenge feels a bit daunting, I also find it exciting. And I wonder if the church in the world could be particularly positioned at this point in history to help people forge deeper connections and build up our communities. Could we, the church, help counter feelings of isolation and do something to address the polarizing forces in our world?
We all need a sense of belonging, after all. And church can be a place where we find that. In fact, a shared sense of belonging is probably more important than having exactly the same beliefs. We can and do have diverse perspectives and can still be at home with one another, care for one another, encourage one another, and serve others together. There must be mutual respect and acceptance of our differences though. That is vital. And that also leaves us room to grow and learn from one another along the way.
This is not always easy. Sometimes navigating our differences can be tricky, especially if we want to get into deeper and more difficult issues. We’re discovering this in the Dialogues on Race class as well. Hearing about another person’s pain can be a painful experience. Being confronted on our participation in unjust systems (willingly or unwillingly) is difficult too. Trying to navigate feelings of guilt or defensiveness and move beyond them into meaningful actions of restoration and justice is not a simple thing. Listening to others’ experiences and perspectives with openness while holding back on our own judgments is an intentional choice that isn’t always comfortable or our default mode as human beings.
These are some of the challenges. But these things are needed if we are to engage in real dialogue in which we hope to deepen our connections and discover some avenues for collaborative community building and justice-seeking.
And the challenge still remains as to how to begin to build these connections; how to get people together to begin the process.
Inviting people to join us in what we’re doing is one way. Getting the word out in various forms, personally inviting people to come participate in our activities and ministries, practicing good hospitality, and welcoming, affirming, and caring for people when they show up… all of these are important.
Going out into the community is another way. In fact, Jesus seemed to do a lot more going out than he did staying put and expecting people to come to him. That’s a challenge to the church in the world, I think. How might we expand our outreach efforts and community involvement outside our walls? This is a question most churches ought to be considering on an ongoing basis.
Collaborating with others is key, of course. How do we nurture our ongoing community relationships and find new partners in ministry and support our neighbors doing good work in the world? Shortly you are going to hear more about how we can support students at Cal State Long Beach right now. That is part of this. These community partnerships are important avenues for outreach and sharing God’s love with our neighbors.
These are all really important dimensions to this community building ministry to which we are called. And I think we are called not only to reflect upon what we currently do, but also to imagine what we might do in the future. We’re doing a lot of imagining around here right now. Why not do a little more?
How might we deepen our relationship with and support of college students and other young adults?
How might we collaborate with other congregations and interfaith partners in our community?
How might we create more opportunities for intergenerational interaction here at our church?
How might we participate in restorative justice work around issues of race, economics, and other issues?
These are questions to consider both as individual people of faith as well as questions for our church to consider. And, as we do, let’s not forget that the Holy Spirit that filled Jesus’ life and ministry is still moving among us, looking to connect with us, challenge us, invite us into relationship, bring us healing and restoration, and build up our communities.
With that hopeful good news, let us be unafraid to reach out and connect with new people and try new things to build up the Kingdom of God. And may we all find a little of Zacchaeus’ goofy fan boy enthusiasm for Jesus when we need it.