Scripture: Luke 18:31–19:10
Let me start with a statement that probably seems painfully obvious to a lot of you: I have no idea what I am doing up here.
Of course, I have had plenty of years of experience preaching, and actually have an advanced degree in it. But I never took a class in pandemic preaching: “How to Preach to an Empty Room and an iPhone 101” The education and experience I have is not based on this situation, and I don’t even get to shake your hands at the end of the service these days, for you to tell me what you like (and don’t like) about my sermon. I have no idea what I am doing up here.
Meanwhile, I along with the SLT are trying to figure out a schedule for a return to in-person worship, balancing the return of kids to school…and the appearance of more and more variants…and the impact of social isolation after all these months…and now talk of a third wave here in the Midwest. I won’t speak for the SLT, but I would say for my part, I don’t have all this figured out, for sure. We’ll know more in hindsight in a few years, but in the moment, we are trying to figure it all out. In fact, I would suggest that the whole underlying premise of the ReShape initiative is “we don’t know what we are doing here…help us figure it out together.”
Maybe you know the feeling. I think a lot of us feel pretty clueless these days. Some think they have all the answers (see Facebook) and know exactly what we should do! But most of us acknowledge some cluelessness…some desperation. We thought we knew some things, but then we had to figure out how to teach in a pandemic or sell products in a pandemic or be retired in a pandemic, when we expected to be able to hang out with friends and travel to see our grandkids! None of us really know what we are doing.
And for some of us, that is hard. My guess is that there are days where we feel at the end of our rope. Of course, some of us have felt that more acutely than others: some have suffered personally the consequences of the coronavirus or other health issues. Others have lost income or jobs. Others have struggled with mental health during this past year. There are plenty who have suffered more than I have. But I think a lot of us, even if we don’t have this clear and targeted reason for it, feel clueless and weary and worn. If I had to name it, I would call it Communal Coronavirus Confusion. A shared feeling of cluelessness and desperation and weariness. One day, psychologists will have a better name for it. For now, it just feels like we have no idea what is going on, and it wears us out. Again, I will speak for myself that I am tired of it all…mentally tired and confused by all the decisions that have to be made, and the new learning required and the extra work needed to accomplish the same thing. And physically tired…I think it has hit me this week, as we all lost an hour of sleep, how confused my body is. We share this communal malaise, and we don’t like it.
Let me suggest that what has been happening to us is not unlike what we read in the book of Luke. Throughout the Gospel, there is this heavy oppressive regime that leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Some turn violent, like the Zealots. Others turn perfectionistic, like the Pharisees. Some turn capitalist, like the tax collectors. But it feels like throughout the Gospel of Luke, no one really understands what is going on.
The first part of the reading today, suggests that very thing. Jesus once again predicts his death, but it says three times at the end of the passage that they have no idea what is going on. “They understood nothing…the truth was hidden from them…they did not grasp it.” Got it, Luke. They didn’t know what was going on. And of course, we have seen that theme over and over again throughout Luke. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is about. The Pharisees don’t understand what Jesus is about. The crowds loved him, but they don’t really get it, either. No one knows how this is going to end up. And it feels like there is this general malaise throughout Palestine at this point. Helplessness. Desperation. Cluelessness. Grief. Pain. Trauma.
And it is out of this malaise that we see Zacchaeus emerge. Now, Zacchaeus is an interesting bird in the context of Luke. We know the story mostly as a kids’ story. For good reason: kids can really understand the experience of being left out, brushed aside, and literally too short to see over people. But this is not a kids’ story (or at least not only a kids’ story). The shortness of Zacchaeus seems less about his stature, and instead more about a detail to set up his desperation. Zaccaheus had some pretty adult motivations going on. He was stuck in an unhealthy system. The Roman tax collection system was a kind of legalized extortion, where tax collectors would charge their salary from those who paid their taxes, because they weren’t being paid by the Roman overlords. They were victims, too. Thus, the common people hated the tax collectors, because they represented the Roman oppressors, and because they took their money for themselves.
The best current comparison I can think of is an employee at one of these payday loan places that charge 500% interest rates. Unpopular among those who are getting gouged, but also disposable to those at the top who use them to gouge their neighbors. And in a moral quandary about how to take care of their own needs at the expense of others. Zacchaeus found himself in the middle of this moral malaise. Zacchaeus participated in this system, and perpetuated it, and benefitted from it, but was also a victim of it. When the whole system is broken, everyone loses. He must have seen what it was doing to his neighbors. He must have known what people said about him behind his back (or to his face). He was worn and weary and broken and desperate and hurting and tired.
And then Jesus came to town. In each of these stories, the desperation for what Jesus could offer is palpable. The blind man, screaming in his desperation and darkness for Jesus to heal him. The desperation of Zacchaeus. There was something that Jesus represented that Zacchaeus wanted. Needed. Desperately yearned for. Was willing to debase himself by climbing up in a tree for. Look at the lengths to which he goes to seek that transformation, that healing, that wholeness. In our photography as a spiritual discipline course last fall, Tom Wilcox brought an old picture of fans after the 1988 National Championship. Crowded around the victorious Jayhawks are a press of fans, including grown men up in trees! Desperate to catch a glimpse of Danny Manning and Chris Piper! As silly as it looks to us to see a grown man in a tree, it looked just as silly for those who saw Zacchaeus! But he was desperate, and didn’t care what others thought of him.
But let me suggest that the power of the story is not in the energy of these people seeking Jesus. Watch the flip in the story. Zacchaeus is desperately seeking Jesus…and then Jesus desperately seeks him. “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” It feels funny to use words like desperate to talk about Jesus. It’s not a desperation of need, like it was with the blind man and Zacchaeus, but there is a desperation in Jesus’ words and actions. What else would cause a man to march to his certain death, but a desperate hope that that march would make a difference? A desperate love for a people hurting and lonely and afraid. The end of the passage is explicit: “the Son of Man was sent to seek and save the lost.” The urgency of those seeking Jesus is matched by his urgency seeking them.
This story is first and foremost, is a story of welcome by Jesus. Zacchaeus’s response is significant, to be sure: he will return four-fold to those he wronged! But it is not meant to be a calculated figure of repentance. Of logical reparations. This is not a math problem for Zacchaeus to pay off his community debts. This is an act of praise, an illogical and impractical declaration that comes in the face of the fact that he has been sought. He understands himself—maybe for the first time ever—to be someone worthy of love. Worthy of grace. Worthy of invitation. When Jesus calls him down from that tree, he moves from confused to cared-for. From powerless to purposeful. From desperate to dedicated. We like to poke fun at those who don’t get it in the Gospels…the disciples and the Pharisees and the like. But the bottom line is that Jesus doesn’t seem to have much room for those who know it all! The only ones who get it…are those who don’t get it! Who are ready to be sought and found and saved by Jesus, not by their own expertise.
OK, so what does that mean for us? That we should celebrate our own cluelessness? Well, yeah. Kind of. Barbara Brown Taylor actually talks about this in her book Altar in the World. It is a book of spiritual practices. And one of the practices that she invites us to is “getting lost.” She speaks of the power of the wilderness in the Scriptures. Story after story tell of the truth that only when we are lost, only when we are clueless, can God get to work on us. She says it this way: “when the safety net has split, when the resources are gone, when the way ahead is not clear, the sudden exposure can be both frightening and revealing. We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail. To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place….The point is to give up on the sufficiency of your own resources. The point is to admit that you are lost….”
This spiritual practice of getting lost fits pretty well with the work of Lent, doesn’t it? Over these last weeks, we have been offering this Lenten Rule…practices to engage in this season: listening, humility, communal lament, celebration, and last week the implication was service to the poor and marginalized. But the more I tell you what to do as Christians, the more I run the risk of implying that in order to be acceptable to Jesus, the more things you have to do. The Two-Way pointed this out last week, and used the language of the Reformation: salvation based on works. The Reformers wisely rejected that notion, proclaiming that a salvation based on works (the things we do) is more problematic than one based on grace (the things that God does for us). This is exactly that the Pharisees did wrong. They played Holy Bingo, assuming that their salvation was tied to getting enough numbers crossed off their scorecard. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Now Jesus loves me, this I know. For my overworked and over-busy calendar tells me so. But Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that the only way to win is to throw away the card and receive the grace of being found. Being sought. Being loved.
As does the story of Zacchaeus. He didn’t earn his invitation by Jesus. His works didn’t preclude a holy welcome. All he did was live out of his lostness. His desperation. His confusion. His need. And Jesus did the rest. Zacchaeus’s response to make reparations to others was a natural result of being exposed to a love so deep that it made him want to run out and show that love to others. Even if the mathematics don’t line up. Grace isn’t a mathematical equation anyway!
When you start looking for medieval pictures of Zacchaeus, you will start to find a trend. There are pictures of Zacchaeus up a tree, alongside of pictures of Jesus on the donkey from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. In fact, this passage is only a few verses away from the entry into Palm Sunday, which we will read next week. And in a more concrete way, they seemed to see the connection between the tree that Zacchaeus climbed, and the trees which were stripped to lay branches on the road in front of Jesus. In their minds, since Zacchaeus was up the tree anyway, he could throw a few branches down to honor Jesus.
But I think that there is a spiritual connection, as well. Jesus was willing to seek and save the lost, willing to enter into the teeth of the enemy in Jerusalem, willing to lay down his life in desperate love. In some ways, Zacchaeus is the symbol of that love. When he enters that city next week, Jesus is telling every single one of us like he told Zacchaeus “Hurry on down, because I am seeking you. I am desperately in love with you. You are sought.” The donkey. The temple. The cross. All symbols of that age-old story: Jesus seeks you. Even unto death. Even to the ends of the earth.