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Coming to Your Senses: Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost; Reformation Sunday
Luke 19:1-10

The usual custom when a preacher or a would-be prophet is doing well out on the circuit, is for him to accept an invite from a pious local dignitary: someone upstanding, a pillar of the meeting-house, a bit of a connoisseur of the finer points of the law, who will feed the rising star, and in return get a private performance of whatever the new thing is he’s offering, as after-dinner entertainment. But Yeshua [Jesus] keeps ignoring the invitations and picking the night’s host for himself, from out of the crowd — again and again unerringly settling on some really unrespectable citizen, someone like a wineshop owner the pious would ignore in the street, or on an out-and-out public enemy, like a tax-farmer for the empire.*

That’s how one contemporary author describes how Jesus goes about things, including in today’s reading. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus picks the host-to-be from the crowd, and picks the kind of person that is going to get the respectable (or just plain normal) people grumbling.

Grumbling is an understandable human reaction to injustice or unfairness. About 500 or 600 years earlier, the prophet Habakkuk wrote “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” And the crowds were right to grumble about Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector — a chief tax collector — and was rich. He was rich because he was a tax collector, and he was a tax collector because a foreign power controlled his people’s land, and he thought it prudent to side with the invaders. Taking money from his people, his community — the people he’d grown up with, eaten with, worshipped with, worked with… and passing it along to the guys slowly eroding their freedom. Passing it along to the machine gun-toting soldiers at the street corners and the checkpoints… Passing it along to the Nazis occupying Paris… To the lizard-skinned aliens colonizing the Earth in the ’80s science fiction series V. So the crowds grumble. With good reason.

I suspect Zacchaeus was used to the grumbling (though it didn’t make it any easier to deal with). He climbs a tree to get a look at the travelling prophet. But isn’t that also symbolic of the sense of distance between himself and his community (the community in which he was raised)? The tree gives him a view, but it also shields him; the leaves and branches conceal him. He can keep Jesus (and the crowds) at a safe distance. He’s in the good graces of the most powerful military force in the world, and he’s rich. And yet not everything is right within himself (not to mention in his relationships). There’s a yearning for reconciliation (within himself, and in those relationships.) He suspects that this Jesus will somehow help with that. And finally being open, honest, and vulnerable to himself (and to God, and to others), he’s done something unusual, childish, and undignified (especially for a rich person), by climbing that tree. And his life changes when Jesus names him, and involves and includes him.

Jesus — a champion of the hurting and oppressed, who knew and used anger to turn tables when necessary — doesn’t lecture Zacchaeus. Doesn’t have him sign a form pledging a change in behaviour. Nor does he ignore him — steer clear of him and his bad reputation — leaving him to be ignored or spat upon by that understandably frustrated crowd. Maybe Jesus sees that Zacchaeus’s failings are just more obvious than most of ours. Maybe Jesus recognizes that the only hope for real, lasting change in this lost soul is going to have to come from God. And maybe Jesus sees that God must be at work, giving Zacchaeus the inclination to climb that tree like a little kid.

Jesus invites Zacchaeus to lunch — invites him into relationship (as he does to each of us). And the list of changed behaviours and making of amends comes as the fruit of this encounter. Not its prerequisite. The desire for justice, for change, for a better Zacchaeus, is still there. But Jesus puts this change of life in the context of love. With the safety net of love there to catch us if we fall (relevant for Zacchaeus up in that tree), we can take the risks and face the fears that we need to, to begin to set things right. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith. Sometimes it involves taking a chance. And the safety net is our trust in a God that will catch us if we fall.

This story — a story like the last couple we’ve heard — is a story about grace. But that’s a very specific, religious term, that we sometimes either get too used to, or alternately, we only know it in a really narrow religious sense, and remain unsure of what it means in real life. So looking at this story, I’d say that grace has something to do with Jesus wanting Zacchaeus down there back amongst the community, and not hidden up in a tree. Recognized as a child of Abraham and Sarah. Grace is when people grumble in the never ending contest of comparing and judging, but Jesus stands up for us and says he’s come to seek out the lost, find the lost sheep, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Grace is power of God working inside Zacchaeus, quietly, internally urging him to join the crowd greeting Jesus.

All of this is especially pertinent this Sunday, a day in which many Lutherans and other Protestant Christians observe Reformation Sunday; a day to remember the heroes of the 16th century Reformation era (and other eras) who helped the Church to remember the treasure that it carried, but also the reality that the clay jars it carried tended to accumulate dirt and dust that obscured the treasure within.

You probably know something of the famous story of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses (or points) to the door of the church, opposing the corruptions that had come to dominate much of church life in his day. The first thesis goes: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” He goes on to clarify that the sacrament of confession (a priest declaring forgiveness), nor some sort of inner feeling, like feeling bad for doing something bad, is true repentance. We see true repentance in Zacchaeus, who excitedly tells Jesus that for the rest of his life he’s going to do things differently. Luther would explain that repentance is something like having “a change of spirit” or “recover[ing] one’s senses.” Today we might say “coming to one’s senses.”

But again, for Luther, this wasn’t something that the church or a clergyperson could do for us, nor is it something that we can all do ourselves, by feeling really bad about ourselves, or feeling really good, or saying that we’ll just do better next time. Repentance comes from God; it’s the working of the grace of God. It’s God bringing us back to our senses. Yes, it’s there when Zacchaeus (or we) say that things are going to be different from now on. But it started way back when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was going to be passing by, and he said that he wanted to see it. God was working inside him, giving him an awareness of how — as rich as he was — things were not all well in his life. And that was the first step in opening himself up to God, and opening himself back up to the community. It may have seemed foolish or embarrassing — the richest guy in town struggling up a tree — but that day salvation came to his household. And that is the freedom and newness that is available to everyone of us: the sometimes difficult awareness that not everything is right in our lives, in our relationships, in our very selves. But the acceptance of that awareness is nothing less than God inside us. And it’s the first step into renewed and restored life (something that 12-step groups have known for a long time).

So today, in our Eucharist, our communion, maybe focus on that moment after the Lord’s Prayer when the bread is broken. Even at the back you can probably still hear the audible cracking of the wafer. Let that be a symbol and a reminder that our salvation comes to us not through riches or strength, but through brokenness. And in that silence and in that cracking, take a moment to explore and to lift up your own brokenness. Not everything within and around me, and you, and your neighbour is alright and at peace. Accept that. And celebrate that awareness. Because God’s power is known in weakness. And that honest awareness is the first step of repentance; of something new, changed, and different. For Jesus “came to seek out and to save the lost.” Thanks be to God.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 121.