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Luke 19:1-10 & Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
It’s awfully convenient, don’t you think? I mean Zacchaeus just happens to be in the right tree and the right time, guessing correctly which way the parade is going to turn, and Jesus just happens to look up right then to see him in the tree. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, do we even know that Jesus’ eyesight was that good?
Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, points out that throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to be passing by at just the right time for people. Just when a man is twisted by demons (4:31, 8:26), Jesus the exorcist passes by. Just as men are involved in the daily grind of making a living, Jesus passes by and calls them to follow him (chap. 5). Just as a centurion’s servant falls ill, Jesus happens to be in town (chap. 7). Just as someone reaches the end of her suffering rope, after years of struggle, Jesus happens to be moving down the street (8:41). Just when someone thinks they are beyond the notice and reach of a loving, forgiving God, Jesus the Good Shepherd, the Forgiving Parent, sets comes along with a parable (15:1, 15:11). And just when a short, insecure extortionist is primed for repentance, guess who is passing through Jericho?
See, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Tax collectors have featured heavily in the lectionary recently, indicating something in the gospels which is kept on the DL in most churches…money matters to Jesus. Not in a prosperity gospel, “Jesus wants to make you rich” kind of way, but as a moral claim on our lives. Jesus cares about what we do with our money, in part because money is power – even in first century Palestine – and Jesus REALLY cares about what we do with our power.
The tax collector is the stereotypical example of what NOT to do with money or power in Jesus’ time. Tax collection was a major part of the imperial model, it’s how Rome kept things going. And the best way to squeeze the most money out of the locals, insuring that Rome’s tribute was regular and sizable, was to get a local to do it. They know the people, they know who has the money, and they have the connections already. The problem with that is, you have to find someone willing to sell out their own people for a profit. And, fortunately for Rome, there’s always someone willing to do that.
So, Zacchaeus’ job was to shake people down for the tax money, and he was apparently good at it. He gathered all that he could and whatever he gathered over the tax amount was his to keep. So the harder he shook, the more he made. And Zacchaeus, the text tells us, was rich…but not popular.
There’s a whole sermon about economic injustice, the gaming of systems to keep the poor down and the ways that such systems don’t really change, they just change outfits. But that’s not the sermon for today. For the more I tried to write that one, the more the Spirit told me to remind us all of the presence of God in Jesus at the right time, in the right place. The more I wanted to decry the injustice, the more God wanted me to say, pay attention – it’s not coincidence, this meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus may have been wealthy, but he had no joy. He may have had power, but he wasn’t whole. He had slowly become self-aware enough to know that the very thing from which he profited was eating away at his soul, for he was damaged, too, by the same system that exploited and oppressed others. Racism, sexism, homophobia, all of the oppressive systems we have in place damage us all – certainly those targeted by those systems first and foremost, but they damage even the perpetrators, for they are evil, and they break us down like an infection, wounded hearts and weakening souls. Zacchaeus was lost, and would have been seen as such by everyone around him. And yet, Jesus comes to seek out and save the lost.
This salvation will not be easy for Zacchaeus. Think of what’s going to happen when Zacchaeus does what he says he’s going to do – give away half his possessions and, perhaps most importantly, paying out reparations to those he has swindled. He’ll disrupt the whole process. That’s actually the point of reparations – to disrupt the injustice. His actions will alert the authorities that want the status quo. He’ll be rejected, if not persecuted, by them. His whole life will change. And, personally, I Jesus I think had been looking for someone like this – someone within the system who would reject the system…someone who benefits from injustice to stand up and say, “No more. It ends with me.”
The prophet Habakkuk raises the same kind of incredible proposition…that in the midst of turmoil and injustice, God is working. The terrible things that we see around us are not forever, they have a finitude – they are coming to an end. Habakkuk also makes another claim – evil is real, it is unexplainable with logic and it seeps into everything around us, maybe even us. But there is a hope that is found in living faithfully, in trusting in a vision that you cannot yet see, in finding hope in our dependence on God’s power and wisdom. There is hope in knowing that God finds us in our suffering and enables us to move beyond it. And that hope, the prophet says, ought to be written so large that you could read it even if you were running past as fast as you could run…it isn’t, but it ought to be.
While it might be tempting to think of ourselves as just characters in a play whose plot is already established, I’m eager to report to us all that it’s far more complex than that. This is a relationship of ultimate proportions, this dance between humanity and divinity, one that cannot be so easily defined as “fate.” We, too, are bound up in systems like we see in these stories from scripture, systems of our own making, though we didn’t make them…systems that we benefit from, though we may not have intention or effort to do so…systems that encourage us to place our dependence on something other than the Love and Grace of God. It may, at times, feel like we’re lost in those systems, unable to even see them, much less escape them. But the Human One has come to seek out and to save the lost, perhaps by showing us that we’re not lost at all…we’re precisely where we’re supposed to be.
What if we are here, right here in this place we call Fellowship Church, surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, these saints we remember today, supported by the past which has laid a foundation, a church that has bucked the trend on many issues, belonging to a denomination that has bucked the trend as well. And now we’re being invited by God to be a holy disruption in the systems around us today…welcoming people who the church has rejected, making claim on the human rights of people to seek asylum and refuge, to have healthcare, including a woman’s rights to the care of her own body, and education? What if we are being invited with our own lives and actions to change the narrative, to use our power, and, yes, even our money, as a worldly means to achieve God’s good ends, even when that means putting our own comfort and wealth at risk, thereby disrupting the evil systems that keep the people of God oppressed and disenfranchised?
What if whatever issues we face — whatever issues YOU face – are not as much problems as they are opportunities, a divine “coincidence” that gives us a chance to see a different way of being – written so large that it’s hard to believe we didn’t see it before.
What if it’s no coincidence that we are where we are…when we are. Maybe it’s a voice calling us all down out of our own tree, inviting us to salvation?