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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 31 - Proper 26 - Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12, Luke 19:1-10
"The Gospel In Sycamore"
Barry Robinson


From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
Ordinary 31 - Proper 26 - Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12, Luke 19:1-10
"The Gospel In Sycamore"

     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."

     CESAR: "And the rich person who sees a change coming in the world
     (and you see it coming if you read the Gospels) and doesn't take
     steps to be admitted into the just society that's going to come,
     into the new humanity that's not going to die (which is what
     eternal dwelling places means), that person is acting like an
     idiot."             - Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname

There are some stories in the Bible that are so good that they just sort of
sum up what it is all about - it meaning you and me and all the other
peculiar people of our lives and this crazy thing we call the gospel of
Jesus Christ and that strange breed of men and women we call 'the church',
whose behaviour is enough to drive you to drink at times and, at others,
enough to make your heart break.

The story of Zacchaeus.  When I was growing up in church, it was one of my
favourite childhood stories; and I suspect it still is a favourite with
every kid who has ever felt small or out of it and ends up, instead, being
the centre of attention.  But Luke didn't write it for children.  He wrote
it, I think, because it somehow epitomized for him the peculiar mystery of
what continues to happen in and around Jesus of Nazareth.  He wrote it
because what happened in Jericho that day was what was happening in his own
church fifty years later just as it is, no doubt, what is happening, one
way and another, in your church and mine.
  
Zacchaeus was one of those people Jesus seemed to like being around.  There
is no other way of putting it.  The people he spent most of his time with,
the people he liked to party with, the people he seemed to lavish his
attention upon were the people most "church" people today wouldn't have the
time of day for - people who seemed slightly demented in their behaviour,
the social misfits and ne-er-do-wells, the deviant portion of the
population we would not invite to our dinner parties.  Zacchaeus fit the
bill to a tee.

For one thing he was filthy rich; for Luke says he was not only rich he was
a tax collector.  As we saw last week, the word achetelenos actually means
'chief toll collector'.  Zacchaeus was not the little guy who sat at the
toll booth and actually collected the tolls and tariffs the Romans charged
the local populace.  He was more like the local don who had managed to buy
the contract to collect tolls in that region.  Chief toll collector meant
he managed the system; and it was a system that stunk to high heaven.
Zacchaeus was the top of the heap, the guy who skimmed off the top of those
who skimmed off the top.  A career criminal who had managed to make it big.
There wasn't a richer man in town nor a sleazier one.

So that, when the famous rabbi from Nazareth came through town, the one
renown for preaching his version of God's shalom - shaking down the rich in
order to compensate the poor - the people of Jericho could hardly wait to
hear what he was going to say to that old fat cat, Zacchaeus.  "Give'm hell
preacher!' they probably said as Jesus mounted his soap-box about to launch
into his message for the locals.  "Tell him to wise up!  Clean up his act!
Get outta' town!"

Funny thing was, Zacchaeus had tried to get a ring-side seat for the
action; but the street was so packed with people that he couldn't even get
a glimpse of Jesus because he was too short, Luke says.  Most of us have
always thought that meant Zacchaeus was too short; and maybe he was.
Interestingly enough, the Greek translation can be read both ways - because
Zacchaeus was too short or because Jesus was.  Maybe Zacchaeus was
six-foot-one.  Maybe Jesus was four-foot-ten.  At least one later Jewish
critic of Christianity commented on Jesus' short stature as contrary to
what one might expect in a son of God.  Who knows.

What is important is that Zacchaeus was drawn to Jesus.  Maybe it was just
curiosity - something to while away a hot afternoon when there was nothing
better to do but count his loot.  Maybe too it was the rumours Zacchaeus
couldn't help hearing about this rabbi's penchant for hanging around with
the wrong kind of people.  What kind of rabbi liked to swap drinking
stories with whores and toll collectors?  This he had to see; and he was so
determined that he climbed a sycamore tree so that he could see more than
the backs of his neighbours.

It was then that Jesus spotted him, maybe dangling there over a limb,
looking ridiculous, desperate just to see.  "Zacchaeus," said Jesus, "get
down out of there in a hurry.  I'm coming to your house to spend the night
with YOU!"  Luke doesn't say whether Zacchaeus climbed down out of the tree
or fell out of it.  My guess is that it was the latter, that he was so
astonished by what Jesus had to say that he literally lost his grip.

In any case, that's when things got real quiet all of a sudden - like the
quiet in a church when a preacher says something so unexpected and real
that everybody waits to see what is going to happen next.  At first, the
good people of Jericho probably started snickering up their sleeves.  "For
a smart young preacher, he sure doesn't know much about people!" they
laughed.  Then, when they realized he did know who Zacchaeus was, they
started murmuring to one another, "He can't be serious!  There isn't a
bigger crook in the county!  Has he lost his marbles!?"  This was no joke.
It caused a scandal.

                                     +

It is, at least, one of the points Luke is trying to make: that there was
this resistance to the reality that Jesus was and is. 

 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 loving
your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving
the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to
actually practice doing it.  That's what bothered people about Jesus.  He
not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went
out and did it.  He didn't just say God's embrace was wide enough to
welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else
would.  It upset the balance.  It was too unsettling to the way things
were.

For, just as pious Jews made a habit of labelling people at the time of
Jesus in order to define the boundaries of what was important to them, it
wasn't long before Christians adopted the same type of discrimination. 
Only people of good moral character and impeccable credentials could be
welcomed into the church.  Only people who hadn't been divorced or didn't
drink could be ministers; for Christians had a vested an interest in making
the church look respectable once it had gained the acceptance of the
surrounding culture.  It is why some of the parables of Jesus, like the
story of the man who had two sons, and some of the stories about Jesus,
like the woman caught committing adultery, caused considerable controversy
in the early church.  They made Jesus look like a flake, like somebody who
didn't have very good judgement at times.  The story of Zacchaeus was
another, 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.  "I'll give
everything back in spades!" he said.

Maybe he did say it.  Maybe he even meant it.  Regardless, Jesus said,
"Three cheers for the Irish!"  He welcomed him aboard anyway, which means
any way he could get him; because that's what Jesus seemed to be about:
finding and saving and rejoicing about getting somebody who was as good as
dead back again.

     "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."

It would be nice to think that Zacchaeus got converted over night.  That he
got welcomed into the local chapter of the Lodge, was elected Head Elder
because of his charitable work.  Became a model citizen of Jericho.

It's just that I doubt that it would have made all that much difference to
Jesus.  He wanted him back even when he was a sawed-off social disaster
with a big bank account and a crooked job just the way God has always
wanted each one of us back too, whether or not we ever manage to pay up
personally for everything we've done.
  
It's a story, in the end, about the continuing scandal and lunacy of a God
who can't seem to help himself.  Don't take my word for it.  Just remember
the story: of Aaron and the bull-shooters, Jacob, the con-man, Rahab, first
of the red hot mamas, David, the stud, Paul, the bully, Peter, the
big-mouth, even Judas, for heaven's sake.  Even Zacchaeus before he got
religion.  He wanted all of them though they were as peculiar as hell.
Treasured them, treasured us, not so much because of what they were or
because of what they became but because they were his.  Because we are his
peculiar treasures; and, such as we are, we reveal his glory, which is to
say, his incredibly bad taste for people who, if nothing else, just can't
resist scrambling up whatever is handy just to catch a glimpse of what it
would be like to be back home.

                                     +

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 - Habakkuk, a cultic prophet, probably living around
625-612 B.C.E., complains to God about a perennial problem: the presence of
evil and the suffering of the innocent.  What's the point of having faith
in a just God under such circumstances?  God tells Habakkuk to watch and
wait for an answer.  In the meantime, God says, the righteous shall "live"
by faith.

1.   When was the last time you complained to God? About what?
2.   What did you hear in response?
3.   In what sense is righteousness the only reward we need?


2 Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12 - The Lectionary asks us to skip over verses
5-10 because it doesn't have the stomach for the jolting words asking for
God's vengeance upon oppressors.  But it is important to remember that all
of this chapter is an attempt to address a church experiencing the terrible
ordeal of persecution.  While we may not agree with the idea of vengeance,
the church has not always found images of a meek and gentle Jesus enough to
cope with the threat of annihilation.  Nevertheless, the author turns this
promise that "God will see justice done for his people" into a prayer for
the Thessalonians that they might be encouraged and strengthened.

1.   In what ways do Christians experience persecution today?
2.   What is the greatest temptation for the church in a time of
tribulation?
3.   What is "the time of trial" for you?
4.   How does God strengthen you?


Luke 19:1-10 - The story is Luke's with no parallels anywhere else.  It
builds on themes that are important to Luke, like "saving the lost" and
"repentance".  It also presents, in miniature, the drama of Jesus' life and
message.  The gospel is received by those who least deserve it.  It
astounds those who pride themselves on "keeping the law".

1.   Why does Zacchaeus respond to Jesus the way he does?
2.   Would his response have mattered to Jesus?
3.   When have you see this drama happening in your own religious
community?
4.   In what sense is the story one of the oldest and deepest jokes?


FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "God does not want to save us by our own personal
and private righteousness and wisdom.  God wants to save us by a
righteousness and wisdom apart from this, other than this: a righteousness
which does not come from ourselves, is not brought to birth by ourselves.
It is a righteousness which comes into us from somewhere else." - Martin
Luther. 

1.   Have someone read or tell the story of Beauty and the Beast and then
discuss how this illustrates this week's gospel.
2.   When did such a love find you?


HYMN:  'Tis the Gift to be Simple  (Voices United 353)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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