Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – October 31, 2010
Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. This was my first introduction to the story of Zacchaeus, in song form, as a very young child in my church’s children’s choir. I’m pretty sure that there were hand motions that went with it, because I seem to remember putting my hands on my hips and wagging my finger when we yelled Jesus’ line, “Zacchaeus, you come down here, because I’m going to your house today!”
It was a happy song, and it formed the body of my knowledge about Zacchaeus for longer than I may care to admit. It painted a picture of a happy, short man who, in his exuberance, did silly things like climbing trees, running around in crowds, and generally acting like a child. But this is not a happy story, or at least not that type of happy story.
Zacchaeus was not well liked by his community. He was the chief tax collector, and made his living by taking money from people, over and above what they owed to Rome. And he was evidently quite good at it, as the scripture tells us that he was rich. There is good reason to believe that he was also a Jew, which added insult to injury in they eyes of his peers. Here was one of their own people who was taking away their hard earned income and giving it to the Empire. Zacchaeus was a traitor in their eyes, and had the same social standing as lepers, criminals, and other low life.
While my childhood song would have us believe that Zacchaeus could not see simply because of his height, it was far more likely that he was elbowed, shoved, and beaten to the back of the crowd. Zacchaeus was an outsider among his own people, and the crowd cast him out from their presence, denying him access to Jesus. It wasn’t because of his shortness, although it probably made him easier to spot in the crowd, easier to bully, and easier to despise. It is no coincidence that scripture remembers him for his three essential characteristics: short, rich, and a tax collector.
In this humiliated and shamed state, Zacchaeus abandons what remained of his dignity—or perhaps in an act of defiance embraces the infantilizing treatment of the crowd and behaves like a child—running ahead and climbing a tree, where he can finally see Jesus and be free of the torment of the crowd. But this is the Good News, my sisters and brothers, Jesus saw him! Jesus saw through the crowd, saw through the loneliness, saw through the pain and humiliation, saw Zacchaeus—a son of Abraham—and Jesus loved him, and Jesus called him.
“Hurry, for I am coming to your house today!” Zacchaeus answered Christ’s call with exuberance and prepared his house to receive Jesus, giving away half of his wealth and repaying those he had wronged four times over. And Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus in.
When I think about this story, I can’t help but wonder where I am in it. As a gay man, I can identify to an extent with Zacchaeus’ experience as an outsider in his community. Whether it is songs on the radio, ads on roadside billboards, or the use of my sexual identity in the political cycle, I am continually reminded that I am different at best.
But if I am being honest with myself, I also must acknowledge that as a middleclass, white male, I have an equal claim to the crowd in this story as I do to Zacchaeus. I have participated in the jostling, elbowing, and shoving that leaves some at the back of the crowd—perhaps not through direct action, but certainly through my inaction; perhaps not through words uttered, but certainly through silences kept.
I wonder where each of you would place yourselves in today’s story. Some of you will see yourselves in Zacchaeus, some of you in the crowd, and many of you, like me, will see yourselves in both. But this is the good news, my sisters and my brothers, Jesus sees you and me! Jesus sees us at the boundary of acceptable society, just as Jesus sees us in the midst of the crowd, and seeing each of us—children of God—Jesus loves us, and Jesus calls each of us.
The question is how each of us will answer Jesus’ call. I know that my response, unlike the unbridled eagerness and joy the characterized Zacchaeus’ response, is best described as stubborn. I wonder how each of you would describe your response to Christ’s call, because I can assure you that we are all called.
I also wonder where we would place our community—and here I don’t mean each of us individually, but this parish, this collective known as St. Paul’s—within the story. I don’t think that we are the crowd; after all we work hard to extend God’s welcome to all people, not elbow, shove, and push people away from God. But neither can we claim the outcast role like Zacchaeus in the story.
No, there is very little about being Episcopalians that would move us towards the fringe of society. Our community’s validity is not challenged; our right to gather is not questioned publicly or made into the topic of political debate. We do not meet under the cover of darkness and in the privacy of homes, and we do not have to begin explanations of what we are about with an apology.
In fact, the situation is quite the opposite, as the name of our church suggests, St. Paul’s on the Green. We are located in a place of honor on the town green. We meet in a landmark of a building that is visible from all over Norwalk. And if I wear the signs of my position within this church while out in the larger community, I do not fear for my life, but instead find deference and respect.
No, I don’t think that this church can identify itself with Zacchaeus. Or at least, we cannot identify ourselves with Zacchaeus the Outcast. But lest we forget, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector and he was very rich. He likely moved among the high social circles of his time. This is Zacchaeus the Establishment.
But that is not a condemnation or a judgment, for Zacchaeus the Establishment yearned to know about Jesus. The scripture does not tell us why Zacchaeus so desperately wanted to see Jesus, perhaps he had heard stories of his miracles, perhaps he felt that there was something missing in his life, or perhaps he knew that Jesus could provide him something that his wealth and prominence could not.
Whatever the reason, Zacchaeus the Establishment descended into the crowd when he heard that Jesus was coming. Zacchaeus the Establishment endured the torment of the crowd, the crowd that hated him for who he was and what he represented. Zacchaeus the Establishment shed the dignity and respect that his wealth and prominence would have normally dictated and ran ahead like a small child, with a fevered abandon, he climbed up in a tree just to catch a glimpse of this Jesus person he so desperately wanted to know.
And this is the good news, my sisters and my brothers, Jesus saw him. Jesus saw through the affluence, saw through the comfort, saw through the establishment, and Jesus saw Zacchaeus. Seeing Zacchaeus, Jesus loved him and called him. Hearing Christ’s call, Zacchaeus gave up his last claim to the Establishment, giving away his wealth to the poor and those he had wronged. And so Jesus sees us, sees through our location on the Green, sees through our landmark building, sees through our prominence in the community, and sees a beautiful community of God’s children that desires so earnestly to know Jesus.
And seeing us, Jesus loves us and calls us.