HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 26:1-4, 8-9
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 19:1-10
SERMON: "On the Road to Sainthood"
Frederick Buechner in his book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who presents from A-Z several dozen character sketches of well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known) biblical characters. And naturally, Zacchaeus is the entry for “Z.” About this man Buechner writes:
“Zacchaeus makes for a good [character] to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father.
There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring Job to death if Yahweh had not stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured, too. Why? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it - that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them, at their best to be, because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all.
“All the earth is mine,” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein” adds the 24th Psalm, and in the long run, that goes for you and me, too.
When we think of Zacchaeus, we don’t usually think of him as a
saint, and yet his story tells us a great deal about how one travels down the road towards sainthood.
The first step on that road is to be seeking. Zacchaeus wasn’t found by Jesus hiding among the crowd, with his head down. You know the body language of the student in class, who hasn’t done their homework and hopes against hope that the teacher won’t call on them. No, Zacchaeus dropped what he was doing and went looking for Jesus. He wasn’t hiding; he was actively searching. And when other people blocked his vision, he went running ahead, climbed a tree to ensure his opportunity to see the Lord. Looking for Jesus was his first step on the road to sainthood.
In the Presbyterian tradition we don’t talk a lot about the saints. Our Catholic friends have a saint for this and a saint for that. But in celebration of All Saints Day I will ask you to take a moment to think about the saints in your lives – living or dead. Remember parents and mentors, people who modeled Christian followership, people who ministered to you or others when you were in a special need, people who taught and inspired faith in you.
I suspect many of us hope that we are on the road to sainthood, that some day when others are asked to think of the saints who encouraged them in faith we will find our way into their memories. And yet, to even say such a thing seems to be presumptuous. How can we think of ever being the saints of the church? We dare to think it, because Jesus believes in us.
Several years ago, a school teacher was assigned to visit children in a large city hospital, received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child. she took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the teacher on the other end of the line, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind the others.”
It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. She felt that she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”
The next morning, a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” She started to apologize profusely, but the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment . . . It’s as though he’s decided to live.”
Some weeks later, the boy was able to explain that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization -- They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
To know that someone believes in us is essential. Knowing that Jesus believed in him was enough to turn around Zacchaeus’ life. A man whose spiritual and social life were more critically injured than that boy in the burn unit of the hospital, gained a whole new attitude towards life, because Jesus believed in him. Why is it that most of us, who know how little we like being criticized and condemned, us disapproval and disparagement as our first line of “helping” others be and do better. I’d love to see what would happen if we chose to start by believing in people, by encouraging and appreciating them instead of trying to “fix” them.
Apparently Zacchaeus didn’t think much of himself - and perhaps
with some good reason. He had taken a job with the Roman government as a district tax superintendent. As such, he was surely one of the most despised people in his community. Religiously unclean because he touched money that belonged to the emperor, he was socially and politically undesirable because he became wealthy by collecting more than the required amount from people. He became rich at the expense of his fellow Jews. His spiritual life was a wreck, as was his social life.
He was a small man -- figuratively and literally. He was short, Luke tells us. So short that in order to see Jesus he had to run ahead and climb up in a tree. I kind of picture a small Danny DeVito climbing up in the tree to see Jesus. Sometimes the church feels like that little man, because we too are small. And unfortunately in our society, “small” has so many negative connotations. I mean, when you look for synonyms for “small” you find words like “tiny,” “diminutive,” “peewee,” “miniature,” “dwarf,” “unimportant” and “insignificant.” No wonder the “small” church sometimes has a self-image problem.
But when Jesus came into town, he saw this short fellow up in a sycamore tree, trying to see over the crowds of people who had gathered to see the Christ. Jesus called him by name and told him to come down. Then Jesus invited himself over for supper at Zacchaeus’ house. That was surely the beginning of his new lease on life. They wouldn’t send the teacher to the house of a good-for-nothing, lost cause outcast would they?
Can you imagine that when Zacchaeus received Jesus’ attention, something happened inside him. All those negative messages, his self-image problems, his possessions and his job all seemed insignificant now. Remember that Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or three of them were gathered in his name, he would be there with them. When Jesus encounters the church seeking him, he doesn’t call us diminutive or insignificant. He calls us a family, close-knit, faithful, hard-working. When Zacchaeus realized that Jesus believed in him, he began to believe in himself. Jesus believes in this church, and invites himself in to eat with us, to pray with us, to teach us. Jesus believes in you, and invites himself into your life, to eat with you, pray with you, teach you. And since Jesus believes in you, you can believe in yourselves.
One of my all-time favorite children’s songs is “Kids Under Construction.” In truth, we are all “saints under construction.” We are all working to develop habits that demonstrate our Christian life and faith. We want to establish holy habits. Habit is a powerful force in our lives. There is a true story about a TV announcer who had been doing coffee commercials for several years; then he changed sponsors. This time he was doing a commercial for a cigarette company. On camera for his first new commercial, he took a long draw on his sponsor’s cigarette . . . blew a big smoke ring . . . looked into the camera and said, “Man . . that’s real coffee!” Habits are powerful. On the road to sainthood, we want to establish holy habits -- habits of love and kindness, and patience and faithfulness and right living.
Zacchaeus, that despised, little man was able to move along the road towards sainthood by changing his habits. He responded to Jesus’ attention. He changed the habit of selfishness to one of generosity: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” He changed his habit of dishonesty to one of restitution and then some: “if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
As we consider our own journey on the road towards sainthood, that’s a tall order - to give half our goods to the poor, to give back fourfold to anyone whom we have hurt. And then Jesus, in direct response to Zacchaeus’ change of direction, said to him. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Believing in Jesus is of supreme importance. But it really blossoms when we realize that Jesus believes in us. Look at all the people in the Bible that Jesus believed in. They were people like you and me. Jesus believed in them, and they came to believe in him and themselves. God comes to us in Christ not to put us down, but to show that He believes in us. Think about it: If God can believe in a man like Zacchaeus, isn’t it possible God could believe in us as well? He does. Never doubt it. Our best response: believing in him, trusting him and responding to him.