Jesus must like tax collectors, or Luke wants us to think so. Two weeks running we meet tax collectors. I guess they need someone to speak a kind word for them. Jesus can take care of that for me.
Today Jesus calls a vertically-challenged tax collector down from a tree. We don’t know why he’s so interested in Jesus. He’s determined. He just wants a glimpse. Zacchaeus is busted, slides down the tree, lands at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus immediately invites himself to Zach’s house. Zach is uber-excited, which sets all the good, righteous folks grumbling. It’s interesting to see who welcomes Jesus – not just poor, lowly sinners, but rich ones – a rich, chief tax collector – the worst kind of sinner, the most despised, never included, nor invited – even to family dinners. He cheated his way to wealth, fleecing his own – Rome’s tax toady. He’s a traitor in spades.
Maybe Jesus notices him, because he’s the sort of person Jesus seeks and saves. In a way both men seek each other, and off Jesus goes to a chorus of grumble: “He’s eating with another sinner. I know his momma taught him better.” Maybe the good Episcopal Church Women think he’ll eat quiche with them at the parish hall – or maybe the Greater Jericho Ministerial Alliance thinks Jesus will lunch with them. No – Jesus prefers a chief tax collector, a major league sinner over these good, righteous, religiously meticulous folk of Jericho.
We don’t know what took place exactly. Maybe just being drawn close to God is enough to transform us. Here’s what conversion looks like. Zach promises to give half his possessions to the poor. He’ll repay people he’s defrauded four times as much. That’s way beyond the law’s requirements for restitution. That’s what happens when Jesus really gets hold of a sinner – any of us really. Zach goes from sinner on steroids to fruit bearing disciple when he realizes the divine comes for him.
Jesus also says salvation has come to Zach. Salvation, getting saved, made whole, being restored means more than waking up in heaven when you die. Your entire earthly life changes – personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions, not just spiritual. Salvation is an inner change – which ripples out in how you choose to treat others, in your tone of voice, the words you speak. Salvation is more than praying a prayer – and feeling confident and better off. Jesus isn’t crucified for being a nice guy who tells us what we want to hear. Jesus loves us enough to tell us what we need to know, includes us as we are, and loves us enough not to leave us as we are, even those who grumble. Jesus’ mission – is to seek and save us all. And Zaccheaus is what that looks like.
Change isn’t always welcomed as a good thing. It brings out grumblers. The world in which the church exists has changed. Many remember how good it used to be – and grumble about how bad it now is. One pastor recently remarked: “If we are sure next year is going to be 1959, then we’re in great shape. If we think it’s going to be 2014, we have some challenges before us.” People don’t just show up for church like they did in the 50’s. Social and cultural pressures to attend are gone. People who come to church these days are looking for a connection with God – not because we pressure them.
We are stewards – of our money, time and gifts. We are stewards of what the past we’ve been given. Primarily we are stewards, not because of pledge cards, buildings and money. We are stewards of Jesus’ mission to seek and to save – to embody God’s love to all. Some people grumble – and cry the woes: “Suburbs are where they action is.” According to church statistics the vestry recently reviewed, people moving into our zip code area are younger individuals and families and we’re not exactly the suburbs here. 42% of those in our zip code have no faith involvement; 19% have no religious affiliation preference. The preferred church style is somewhat traditional. Connect the dots, folks. Someone said of Episcopal attitudes: – “We do welcome all. You can come if you want, but we won’t invite you.” Some will come. But Jesus’ mission calls us to actively go out and engage, not sit passively waiting. We have something wonderful and holy to take to others as St. Paul’s: the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. And your entries in the Stewardship Meditation booklet tell me so. People around us wonder: “Am I included? Is the tent big enough for me?” These are the people waiting for us. Their appetite for the world leaves them hungry. They are searching for the “more” Who has us.
Zacchaeus knew something important is afoot in Jesus. I think we are the ones up a tree, now. And Jesus calls us down to earth: “I have come to you, not just to get you to be nice and happily contented people. I have come to raise you from the dead, from boredom – to restore you and send you out – to proclaim the good news to those I am seeking and saving.” I’m glad we like and welcome these folks – and we embrace Jesus’ mission – right? Last time I checked, Jesus wasn’t just saying, “You ordained people go do this; or vestry, this is your assignment, and everyone else can sit and watch.” No, Jesus’ mission is for all, engaged with God as best we can. When we gather at this Table, once again, I think – Jesus still invites, welcomes and eats with sinners – all of us. Can we do anything less?