Sunday, March 17, 2013

Today: A Sermon on Luke 19:1-28

"Zacchaeus in Tree" by Michelle Williams, Jackson, TN
Scripture can be found here...

Sometimes I read the gospels, and I honestly wonder, “What on earth was Jesus thinking?”

Take that last parable. It’s not in the lectionary… it’s not in any lectionary, either the one we’ve been following this year or the one we’ve followed in other years. It’s not there because it’s horrible. It’s dreadful. I hate it. “Slaughter them in my presence”??? Is that Jesus talking?

With every fiber of my being, I cry out: That’s not Jesus. That’s not God.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I would much rather sing you an Irish-sounding ballad:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, Today

OK, so it’s a John Denver song. But still. Today. I don’t want to think of a master who is harsh, unyielding, a bloody tyrant. I want to think of the embrace of “Today.”

It’s another day on the road with Jesus… he is heading, relentlessly, towards Jerusalem and his fate at the hands of a harsh, unyielding, bloody tyrant. He is in Jericho, an interesting city probably worthy of its own sermon at some point. For our purposes, I’ll just point out that the road between Jericho and Jerusalem is notoriously dangerous. Its topography offers lots of convenient places for the bad guys to hide. This is the road on which the poor bloke was traveling who was beaten nearly to death, only to be saved by the Samaritan in Jesus’ famous parable from the first Sunday in Lent. Just the mention of Jericho brings with it a sense of unease. Danger. Blood. Slaughter.

And here is Jesus, passing through, and he attracts the attention of a guy named Zacchaeus, a “rich tax collector.” That’s kind of like saying “an honest bank robber.” A “kind-hearted hit man.” A “patient toddler.” You get the idea. “Rich” and “Tax collector” are NOT supposed to go together. Rich, as I mentioned last week, connotes “favored by God, blessed.” A “tax collector,” on the other hand, is a no-good, lowdown, scoundrel-of-a-collaborator with the dirty, hateful, tyrannical Romans. And the only way those words go together that makes any sense is, the tax collector is rich because he’s stealing. He’s skimming. He’s as bad as tax collectors come.

But. Names are always important in scripture. Names often tell us all we need to know about the person. Peter is “the rock.” John is “beloved by God.” Jesus’ name sings “salvation.” And Zacchaeus means “righteous.”

It’s too bad about that word “righteous.” For 21st century westerners such as ourselves, we hear the word “righteous,” and we automatically add the word “self” as a prefix, meaning, someone who is sure they are right, and everyone else is wrong, and they are going to let us know about it in an arrogant way.

That’s very different from the biblical understanding of the word. “Righteous” in the bible is precisely what you want to be. Righteousness is a gift from God. It means purity of heart, and intention, and living. Righteousness is the way to live. And that name must stick in the craw of people who know Zacchaeus, and what he does for a living, and the knowledge that he must be stealing because he’s rich.

One other thing about Zacchaeus: He’s short. Shorter than most. Several years ago researchers revealed that, on average, men in first century Palestine could be expected to be about 5’1” tall, and about 110 lbs. That’s the average. That means, most likely, Jesus was in that ballpark. Zacchaeus was shorter. Short enough that his best bet to see Jesus was to climb a Sycamore tree, also known in Palestine as a fig-sycamore tree. A fig tree. A tree that bears a fruit that is a central symbol of God’s gracious provision.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Up he goes, because… here comes Jesus. And Zacchaeus, whoever he is, whatever he does for a living, however tall or short or important or insignificant… Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus. He wants to see him that much.

Is there anyone you would climb a tree to see?

And Jesus, because he is Jesus, comes to the tree, and looks up the papery green-yellow bark, past the shiny, green, heart-shaped leaves, and the luscious, ripe yellow or red fruit,  and sees Zacchaeus. And he says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what tomorrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, Today

Today. Have you ever noticed all the times that Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, reminds us of exactly what is going on “today”? As if we didn’t know. As if we weren’t aware of all the myriad things we need to do today, as if we didn’t know that, well, we’d better get to the gym or out for a walk if we want to feel healthy, and we’d better get to the store, because the cupboard is looking a little bare, and oh, there’s that little thing known as “work,” punching the clock, doing the reports, answering the emails, toting that barge and lifting that bale, meeting with the team, the staff, the people, the contractors, getting it all done in time to get home to see the family, or watch the news, or wolf something down before the next meeting, or volunteer commitment, or team we coach or play on… and then hopefully have some time for the homework/ studying for the test/ preparing tomorrow’s report/ saying hello to those people we love but have mostly ignored today. Yeah, we know all about today. Or so we think.

Here are some times the story of Jesus reminds us of what’s really going on “today.”

When Jesus is just a little tiny baby… just a few hours old, if that… angels tell shepherds, “Today is born for you in the city of David a savior, Christ the Lord.” (2:11) Remember that?

When Jesus stands in the synagogue of his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, he declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21) Remember that?

When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and the Pharisees warn him that the murderous Herod is on his trail: “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (13:32) Remember that?

And now… “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  (19:5)

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing…

Today is my moment, Jesus seems to be saying, all throughout the gospel of Luke. Now is my story, he sings. Come down from that tree, Zacchaeus, though it would be ok if you brought some of those beautiful ripe figs… because it’s time for my story and your story to become one story. I am coming to your house today.

A funny thing happens. When Jesus and Zacchaeus are seen going together to Zacchaeus’ house, looking for all the world like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in “Twins,” that grumbling starts again. That, “Why does Jesus spend all his time with these losers?” grumbling? And we learn something about Zacchaeus. And we have an unclear translation here, folks, because Zacchaeus doesn’t promise to make restoration to anyone he’s defrauded at some later date. He is already doing it. “Half my possessions I am giving to the poor,” he tells Jesus. It turns out “righteous” is not only Zacchaeus’ name, it’s what he is. Already. Today.

“Today salvation has come to this house.” (19:9), Jesus says. Which is another way of saying, “Here I am. And here you are. We are together. Today.”

Today is the day of salvation. Not tomorrow, or later, or, oops, last week. But today. The eternal present. Which means, it is always the day of salvation, whether we recognize it or not, whether we squeeze it in between church and volleyball practice or dinner and “Downton Abbey.” Today. Today salvation comes. Today Jesus comes.

There is another “Today” statement in Luke’s gospel. It’s something Jesus says after the bloody tyrants have gotten hold of him, and the life is seeping out of him. To a criminal being crucified right next to him, Jesus says,

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23:43) Remember that?

It is all coming quickly now. We are about to leave behind the parables of Lent, good and bad, because Palm Sunday is coming. For us, it’s next week. For Jesus, it’s today.

But first, Jesus will call a little man to come down out of that tree, and invite himself to that same man’s house for supper. He will gather at table for story, and maybe song. Because even in the face of harsh, unyielding tyrants, even on the threshold of certain pain and death, the time for life, the time for living, the moment of salvation, is today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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