I have sung a charming song about the tree-hugging wee Zacchaeus since childhood. That in itself is somewhat ironic, because Zacchaeus is anything but a charming figure and his story is anything but a children’s tale. For this story hits at the heart of human depravity at the intersection of the truly puzzling grace of God. Luke tells this story efficiently by using only three characters: Zacchaeus, the hated revenue man, Jesus, the feature attraction in a chaotic traveling show, and the noisy and always opinionated crowd. As the story opens, people are scrambling to find the best place to see the much talked about Jesus when he passes by. Zacchaeus pushes and shoves, but no one in the crowd is about to let this short, privileged, filthy rich, and morally despicable traitor cut in line. Not a problem. Always accustomed to getting what he wants, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree with a perfectly fine sight line for when Jesus arrives. Problem solved. The story takes its first twist when to everyone’s surprise, Jesus arrives only to notice this first century Elon Musk perched comfortably in a tree. Why Jesus thinks to look up at all when the crowd on the ground is clamoring for his attention, Luke does not say. And, why Jesus would set his sights on Zacchaeus of all people and do so for more than a hot second is even a greater mystery. The greatest mystery, though, is when Jesus looks up in the tree and says to Zacchaeus, “Come on down, I must stay at your house today.” Earlier, Luke tells us that Jesus is just passing through Jericho, not planning to spend the night. Now, without a word of explanation, Jesus stops his entire traveling entourage to invite himself to stay in the home of the most hated man in town. That is when Luke introduces the third character in the story: the crowd. After Jesus invites himself to dine with Zacchaeus, the crowd mutters and mumbles; they visibly shake their heads in disgust. They are absolutely indignant. “Why in the world is Jesus infecting himself, defying his own family traditions, by entering the house of this flush example of human filth?” And note that Luke does not condemn the crowd’s callous disregard for Zacchaeus. For, by anyone’s measuring rod, Zacchaeus is a low-life, sorry excuse for a human being. He is not only a tax collector; he’s a chief tax collector – the only time that term is used in the entire New Testament. Not only is he a traitorous Roman collaborator who extorts his own people; he is at the head of the line. Well, what happens next is what Zacchaeus knows how to do best – peddle money. In a grand public act for everyone to see, Zacchaeus jumps from the tree and pulls out his checkbook. He says, “Look Jesus, I’m going to fund ten new Habitat Houses, construct a new wing to the Jericho Children Hospital and establish a scholarship fund for all the poor in town to go to college.” To this amazingly generous offer from the newfound, once tree-hugging-tax cheat, now philanthropist, Jesus does not say, “Well, golly gee, oh my, I just don’t know what to say, Zacchaeus. That is just amazing!”
Instead, Jesus does not say a single word about the extravagant promise made by Zacchaeus. Instead, Jesus turns to the indignant crowd and announces something far more outrageous. He tells the crowd: “Today salvation has come to this house.” What? Salvation has come to that absolutely good for nothing Zacchaeus? Really Jesus? How far can you possibly lower your standards? And why? Has salvation come because this sorry excuse for a human being has promised to give away enough money to make your eyes bulge? No, as Luke tells the story, clearly salvation has come to Zacchaus because Jesus sees him for something other than a two-timing, good-for-nothing mouse of a man; he sees Zacchaeus for who he really is, a son of Abraham and a forgiven child of God.
Fundamentally, salvation comes to Zacchaeus because God is in the finding business, especially finding those who are lost. So, it should come as no great surprise that the Zacchaeus story ends with this line: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
Now centuries later, there are several ways to walk into this story. We can walk through the “standing proud” door and join the outraged crowd, convinced that we are respectable people, unlike Zacchaeus. We follow the law, pay our taxes, and give as generously as we can. Walking into the story from this door, we too are outraged at Jesus who should be caring for truth-telling, law-abiding, basically good people like us and not wasting his time tending to miserable misfits and grifters like Zacchaeus.
When we take a hard look in the mirror, though, sometimes we walk through another door into this story. We climb up the tree and nudge Zacchaeus to move over. We join Zacchaeus in curiosity about Jesus, wandering what game he is running, happy to keep Jesus at a safe distance. Ready to say, “We saw Jesus!” and then get on with our lives, mostly oblivious to Jesus.
Luke, though, invites us to walk through another door, a door located at ground zero, to marvel with Zacchaeus that Jesus would even notice us, much less find us and come to us, broken and sinful and lost as we are. Luke invites us to grab hold of the same words that Jesus once spoke to that lost, little, miserable man, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
There is yet one more door that the church has constructed over the centuries for us to enter into this story. I am pretty sure that Luke never had this door in mind when he told the story of Zacchaeus. It is best known as the “stewardship door.” Until I arrived at Cove, everyone knew what I – and what most every preacher – would preach about in October and November – money. Preachers, including this one, would use the story of Zacchaeus as a call for the congregation to give generously, even extravagantly, just as the scoundrel Zacchaeus promised to do.
My annual slog through stewardship sermons changed not long after I arrived at Cove. Almost from Day 1, I talked to the Cove Session, this church’s elected leaders, about stewardship, an elegant, old church word that has been reduced to meaning the giving of money to the church. Jennell and I led the way by making an annual financial pledge to Cove and a number of the Cove Session members humored me and followed suit. When I asked the congregation to pledge, I got a bit of a blank look and few of you joined the pledging party, but not many. I was in a quandary. What was I doing wrong? I scratched my head and concluded, “Good God, Gary, you’ve got to preach better stewardship sermons.”
And, early on, I tried. I can’t say that they were my best efforts, but it was fall and it was time to carve pumpkins and to preach stewardship sermons. So, I did. Well, still almost no one here joined the pledging party. Matters only grew worse in my mind when the pandemic hit. Like most preachers I know, I worried about what would happen to our giving when we were not worshiping here, not passing a plate, not hearing our seasonal sermonic appeals for money, and almost no one was pledging.
And, then I had a conversation with Kathryn Korbon who was the church treasurer when I arrived and then I had multiple conversations with Cove’s current treasurer, Will Retzer. Both Kathryn and Will suggested that I worry a bit less about pledging and during the pandemic, Will pointed out that my financial fear was more a failure of faith. For in each year of the pandemic, your contributions to Cove have grown and have exceeded the budget – even though there has not been a financial pledge in sight.
After finally being hit by enough 2x4’s, it dawned on me what you knew long before I arrived here. Zacchaeus, who has spent his life building his bankroll at the cost of stiffing his neighbors, promises to stop taking and to start giving extravagantly not because Jesus has instructed him to do so or because he wants to buy Jesus’ forgiveness – though I am sure the thought had crossed his mind – he gives generously, sacrificially because he is faced down by the One whose love is extravagant and who finds us when we least expect it and least deserve it.
Over my seven years at Cove, I have watched you give generously and not just your money but your whole being, even when you were not awash in extra money or extra time or extra energy. I have watched you give generously not to curry favor with God, but in overwhelming thanks that God had found you, even when you were lost in the forest of cancer or Covid, a lost job or a lost loved one, lost in despair or addiction. I have watched you give generously again and again because you realize that God’s love for you and me is not reserved for when we reach the honor roll of giving; God’s love for us is for today.
Slowly, it dawned on me that I do not need to preach stewardship sermons to you, because your faith and generosity is a sermon in itself, a sermon that brings me to my knees and often to tears. In fact, I suspect that you are the fourth character in the story, the character that Luke meant to mention but forgot. You are a small group in the angry crowd that smiles in delight when wee, lost Zacchaeus is confronted by Jesus with God’s extravagant grace, grace that never leaves us as it finds us and most importantly, never leaves us.
So, on this beautiful fall, Reformation Sunday, thank you for preaching the annual stewardship sermon with your faith and your lives. It is a sermon I will remember forever.