Proper 26C: The Redemption of the Tree-climbers

zacchaeus-joel-whitehead
“Zacchaeus” (Joel Whitehead)

OLD TESTAMENT:  Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-3

Read the passage from Habakkuk

Most scholars agree that it is difficult to date the writings of the prophet known as Habakkuk.  There are references in it to times preceding the Babylonian exile, so it is possible that it may be a few decades before the invasion of Judah.  The portion of Habakkuk set down for today is part of a dramatic dialogue between God and the prophet. Although the writing is really remarkable, it is sort of hard to read.  Habakkuk laments the amount of protracted wickedness in the land. The wicked continually oppress the just, and there is neither law nor justice in Judah. The despairing Habakkuk asks God how much longer the wicked will prosper. God’s reply is decisive, if shocking. In order to punish the wicked of Judah, God is raising up the military might of the Babylonians. The idea of God’s use of foreign invading armies as punishment of the wicked for their sins is classic Hebrew thought from the period. (It’s the “do bad, get bad” formula that is so prevalent in the early Scriptures.) The rest of Habakkuk 1 contains a description of the atrocities committed by the Babylonians on the people of Judah.

The second part of the reading has the prophet objecting strenuously to God regarding the treatment of the Judeans. He elects to ‘stand at my watchpost’ until he receives God’s response. God’s answer comes in the form of a short oracle, which Habakkuk is ordered to write down. It is to be written clearly, and apparently in large characters, so that ‘a runner may read it’ – a messenger in a hurry running by can still read it and understand it!

The oracle itself is preceded by God’s reassurance. The time will come when God’s vision for a righteous Judah will be fulfilled. Even if it is a long time coming, it will happen. The focus is on the ‘spirit’ of the proud, who have pride in their strength. On the other hand, the ‘righteous’ do not live by their own strength, but rely on their faith in God.

It is the old story—the wicked supposedly carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. On the other hand, the believers contain the seeds of close relationship with God. This teaching is to be applied in a wider context than that of Judah and the Babylonians. It speaks to all nations opposed to the people through whom God is building the divine kingdom on earth.

We live in a self-sufficient age that teaches us that we are in charge of our lives.  But that flies in the face of God’s providence.  There are seasons in our lives when everything is right with our world; there are also seasons of darkness and difficulty.  It is in those times that we are told to wait on the work of the God who waits with us.  We live in a world and a society that often prays for God to “fix” things.  But sometimes God just wants us to focus on the vision that is just ahead.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Is this passage more difficult for you or more uncomfortable? Why?
  3. What vision of justice do you find in the passage?

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12

Read the passage from 2 Thessalonians

This is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before.  In fact, it sort of takes a different track than its supposed first letter.  (In fact the five verses that our Lectionary skips seeks to comfort the Thessalonians by assuring them that those who persecute and afflict them will get their “due”—sort of a spiritual terrorism that, sadly, is alive and well even today).

The letter exhorts its readers to give thanks for their ongoing faith.  This actually means “coming to faith”, probably not adhering to some set belief system.  But it is a costly faithfulness, perhaps one that even puts their lives in danger.  They are in fact growing in their faith – none of the modern trend to look on faith as something which gains one entry to a status or a future heaven and counting for little in real life!

The object here is love and, in particular, love for one another. Perhaps that reflects the pressure. And with that, we are given the assurance of prayer.  To be made worthy of one’s calling appears to mean something like: to help you to measure up to what it demands by becoming the kind of person it requires. That of course depends on human response to God’s work in us, but it assumes that the life and agenda of God is directed towards producing good intentions and good deeds. Goodness is a helpful and very human way of understanding God’s grace. It is not a sterile morality which does nothing wrong (and does no one much good either), but a dynamic (“in power”) movement of the Spirit to produce in us the fruit of love in both attitude and action – strong enough even to undo the vengeance motif laid out earlier!

We want to go for easy alternatives in this world.  This discounts that.  Faith is costly; faith is hard; but through God’s grace, we will find peace for us and for the rest of the world.  The writer was also reminding the church at Thessalonica that they were shaped by spiritual friendships.  They were not in this alone.  Their faith was indeed growing abundantly.  Few things in life are more powerful than a person of growing faith.  When someone is growing in faith, their life bears fruit.  Faith that inspires is consuming, costly, and constantly extravagant.

 

  1. Why are so many so quick to jump on that sort of “spiritual terrorism” type of motif?
  2. Why is the notion expressed here so difficult to embrace?
  3. What “costs” do you see as being associated with faith?
  4. What does the community of faith, these spiritual friendships, mean to you in your faith journey?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 19: 1-10

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

This is a familiar story for many of us.  In fact, if you grew up in the church, you probably sang a song about it.  But put it in context—the story sequences are beginning to come to a close.  Jesus nears Jerusalem (and we all know how the tale ends).  But, here is one last outcast on the way to Jerusalem.  The name Zacchaeus means “clean” or “innocent”.  Perhaps it was wishful thinking on the part of his parents.

But here we are—Zacchaeus tries desperately to see Jesus (much like the blind man that Jesus just healed).  We hear that Zacchaeus is rich (much like the rich man who was sad because he couldn’t part with his wealth.)  And Zacchaeus is small and blocked by the crowd (much like the children kept back by the disciples).  He is a tax collector (like the one that we read of last week praying humbly in the temple.)  Perhaps the writer created some sort of composite character in case we didn’t get it before.  And in true Lukan-style reversal, the shunned, “unclean”, “non-person” is found and redeemed.  But the point is that, unlike some of the others, Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes Jesus into his home.  He didn’t just receive unmerited, undeserved grace and stop there.  He changed.  He had the courage and the veracity to look ahead straight into that vision of God.  And then he tithed!  The miracle is not that Jesus welcomed him or that he was redeemed.  We all know that happens over and over.  The point was that he changed.  THAT is the miracle.  And now Zacchaeus sees.  And when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he announces salvation—not just to this slight little “non-person”, but to the whole of Creation.

We envision ourselves the redeemed.  In fact, we see ourselves as those called by God to help in the redeeming.  Are we truly ready for those who are the “unclean” to change?  Are we willing to change along with them?  Are are we holding on desperately to our riches and our beliefs and our ways of seeing?  Are we unwittingly participating in the suffering of others by allowing injustices in this world?  What does it truly mean to be righteous?  When’s the last time any of us let down our guard and climbed a tree?

 

I wonder if he ever had second thoughts about what he promised Jesus as his feet first met the ground and his eyes first met Jesus’ eyes.

*****************************************

The afternoon sun dappled through the palladium windows in Kirby Parlor at Perkins School of Theology one autumn afternoon a couple years ago. It lit up the rugged, handsome features of an athletic 60 year old man seated in a circle of about 30 young preaching students. He was John Irving, the novelist, author of The World according to Gap, Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany among other novels. He was on campus to do the Tate lectures at SMU and graciously agreed to spend an hour with my preaching students. They provided the topic: What do sermon writing and novel writing have in common?

“Where do you start when you write a novel?” asked one young student.

Leaning forward, he said, “I always begin at the end, with the last scene. I put in it, in excruciating detail, what I want the reader to see, smell, taste, feel, hear …Then I flashback to the very beginning,  to what I call the inciting incident that jumpstarts the whole plot. Then I flash forward, scene by scene, each scene a domino that hits the next, that hits the next, that hits the next, each domino absolutely necessary to the next one, all crucial to the final one, until I arrive once again where I began, at the end.

Leaning forward even further, with an almost religious zeal in his fine brown eyes, he said:  “The trick is, friends, to make people realize there is so much at stake that they must keep reading, from one scene, one domino to the next, with each one asking “Why?” and “What is next?”, feeling that life as they know it can’t go on until they reach that final scene that they read last but that I wrote first.  That’s how I write a novel. You preachers should try it sometime.

Who am I am to ignore John Irving’s advice? Think about preaching a “John Irving” sermon on Zacchaeus. You could use this form on lots of different texts- probably narrative texts would work best.

Start at the end and flash back to the beginning and show how the ending depends on every scene that precedes it.

**********************************************

The things we say in a moment of gratitude. I sit at my table, alone now, shaking my head in disbelief, but with a sort of smile on my face. The voice of Jesus had faded and his footsteps receded as he went on his way to Jerusalem.  Jericho will seem forlorn without his voice and tread.  Servants quietly move around the room, clearing scraps of bread and half filled glasses. Still I sit, shaking my head. What was I thinking? What did I promise? How will I ever give away half my possessions to the poor and repay those I have defrauded four times over? The things we say in a moment of gratitude!

I wouldn’t be sitting here stunned and yet smiling if Jesus had not entered Jericho and passed through it on his way to Jerusalem. That’s how all this came about. But Jesus is always on his way to Jerusalem, always on the way to his death, but also to his life. His path to his crucifixion and resurrection always passes through my town.

I had heard about this healer and teacher, this one who ate with sinners and who touched the unclean.  But if he had not entered Jericho and been passing through it, he would have been only a distant rumor. I would never have been able to see who he was. I would have heard his stories about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep behind and seeking the one, a woman sweeping the house for a lost coin, and a father seeking to save two lost sons. But if he hadn’t bothered to come through my town, I would never have met my Shepherd, my Homemaker, and my Father.

It was as if he came looking for me. Oh, I guess I did my prior part as well. I was looking for him. If I had not had such a yearning to see who Jesus was, I would not have climbed a sycamore tree to see him. And, if there had not been a sycamore tree handy, I would not have been able to see him. None of the taller townspeople was likely to put me on their shoulders! I ran and I climbed, undignified behavior for one already disdained in the town. I ran and I climbed- why? Because Jesus was going to pass that way. That’s the “whisper down the lane” news I had heard. “He’s coming this way. Line up along the parade path. He’s coming this way.”

If I had not been high in my perch I would not have been able to see the top of his head and the sweep of his robe as he went by. That would have been enough for me. Just to see him from a distance. If he had not stopped right under my tree and looked up at me, I would never have seen his face. I would never have met those searching eyes.

If he had not stopped under the place where I was perched, he would not have seen me, would not have been able to direct his invitation to me. Never been able to instruct me to hurry. I did my part. I hurried. There is an air of urgency about an unexpected invitation, an unannounced guest.  If he had not stopped under my tree I would not have felt that stomach lurching sense of dismay, followed by elation. “He not only notices me, he forgives me. He sees me as worthy to host him in my home!” As I clambered down, I remembered the story Jesus once told about an unforgiving servant whom a king forgave of a great debt, who then turned around and would not forgive another. I would be the forgiving servant. His invitation said so much about his respect for me despite all I have done, all that still needs to be forgiven.

As soon as my feet hit the ground, I heard the grumbling of my neighbors. They hate me. They resent me. They call me a sinner. Sinners are those who are ill or disabled or poor, or, who, like me, though rich, are ritually unclean because of what we do for a living. I take their money for the Romans. Others are unclean because they dye cloth or tend sheep or have to sell their bodies for their daily bread. “You’re right,” I feel like saying. “He is going to be the guest of one who is a sinner… But a grateful one, a repentant one.”

What if Jesus had listened to their grumbling and said, “Oh, my bad. He is a sinner, isn’t he? Bad choice for the first stop on my progressive dinner. I’ll move on to someone else.” He would have rescinded the invitation and gone on to Jerusalem, gone on to dine in someone else’s home.  But he didn’t listen to them.  Instead, he listened to me and to what I said next.

If I hadn’t said “Look, half my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much,” my life wouldn’t now have to change.

The things we say in a moment of gratitude. I sit at my table, alone now, shaking my head in disbelief, but with a sort of smile on my face. The voice of Jesus has faded. His footsteps have receded as he went on his way to Jerusalem.  Jericho will seem forlorn without his voice and tread.  Servants quietly move around the room, clearing scraps of bread and half filled glasses from the table. He is gone, and yet, he is somehow still present, still here to guide and energize me. Still I sit, shaking my head. What was I thinking? What did I promise? How will I ever be able to give away half my possessions to the poor and repay those I have defrauded four times over? The things we say in a moment of gratitude! (Excerpt from “Dominoes, Anyone?:  Lectionary Reflection on Zacchaeus, Luke 19: 1-10, by Dr. Alyce McKenzie, October 22, 2010, available at http://www.patheos.com/community/mainlineportal/2010/10/22/dominoes-anyone-lectionary-reflection-on-zaccahaeus-luke-191-10/, accessed 27 October, 2020)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this story say about redemption?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this story?
  4. What about climbing that tree?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The whole future of the Earth, as of religion, seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

Prayer is hope’s breathing.  When we stop praying, we stop hoping.  (Dom Pedro Casaldaliga)

 

Unless one says good-bye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and eventual distinction. (Jean Dubuffet)

 

 

Closing

Close by reading the words of “Would I Have Answered When You Called”, by Herman G. Stuemfle, Jr., The Faith We Sing # 2137

 

Would I have answered when you called, “Come follow, follow me!”?  Would I at once have left behind both work and family?  Or would the old, familiar round have held me by its claim and kept the spark with in my heart from bursting into flame?

 

Would I have followed where you led through ancient Galilee, on roads unknown, by ways untried, beyond security?  Or would I soon have hurried back where home and comfort drew, where truth you taught would not disturb the ordered world I knew?

 

Would I have matched my step with yours when crowds cried, “Crucify!” when on a rocky hill I saw a cross against the sky?  Or would I too have slipped away and left you there alone, a dying king with crown of thorns upon a terrible throne?

 

O Christ, I cannot search my heart through all its tangled ways, nor can I with a certain mind my steadfastness appraise.  I only pray that when you call, “Come follow, follow me!”, you’ll give me strength beyond my own to follow faithfully.  Amen.

 

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