Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, November 4, 2007
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Hear the sermon
Come down, O Love divine,
Seek now this soul of mine;
and visit it with your own ardour glowing.
There is a lot of talk, these days, about seeking, and about seekers.
Some people prefer to describe themselves as ‘seekers’ rather than ‘believers’; some churches design worship services which are specifically intended to be ‘seeker-sensitive’, by which they mean that they want their services to be understandable and accessible to all; every bookstore shelf includes books and resources which are geared towards ‘the seeker’.
In spite of the fact that most of us would call ourselves ‘believers’ rather than ‘seekers’, it is still good for us to realize that we all, at some level, are seekers.
After all, the spiritual life is a journey of seeking God.
The spiritual life is born in the realization that there is more to reality than first meets the eye; it is a life of constantly wanting to probe deeper into the mystery at the heart of all things, the mystery called God. The spiritual life is a life of seeking connections with others and, ultimately, seeking a connection with God.
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke tells the story one such seeker. Most of us probably know this story best in the words of the old Sunday school song.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he;
he climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
The Gospel writer, immediately after introducing the character called Zacchaeus, states that "he was a chief tax collector and was rich". These words are far more than a passing description of the man; instead, they set the stage for the rest of the story that follows.
To be a tax collector in that ancient society was bad enough; to be described as a chief tax collector, and to be a rich man was even worse.
In order to understand the level of disdain that would have greeted Zacchaeus, it is important to understand the historical context.
At the time, the entire area was under Roman control. Although there were some benefits of being part of the Roman empire, one of the consequences of that Roman domination was that the conquered people had to pay taxes to the imperial authorities. The Roman authorities would set the amount that needed to be submitted in taxes by each of the regions of the Empire, and each of those areas was then responsible for raising those taxes, and submitting those collected funds to the government in Rome.
Tax collectors, like Zacchaeus, who were responsible for collecting the taxes would charge marginally more than the required amount in order to make their living. And sometimes those marginal amounts that they would charge, on top of the tax rate, would be rather exorbitant.
In the Jewish community, such individuals would be viewed as collaborators with the oppressive, dominating forces of Rome, and traitors to their people. The fact that the text introduces Zacchaeus not only as a chief tax collector, but also a rich man indicates that he was not only one of the disdained collaborators, but had probably added quite exorbitant costs to the taxes that he collected, thereby amassing his riches from the traitorous treatment of his own people.
And yet, in spite of his material wealth, Zacchaeus knew that there was something that he was missing, something that he still needed to seek. As one interpreter eloquently stated, Zacchaeus was "successful in business, but lost in life." It is not an uncommon human situation--those who have the wealth of the world, and come to the realization that they actually have very little of any significant or lasting value. And so, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through town, he decided to do whatever he could to see this famous individual. Short in stature, he probably was blocked from seeing Jesus by the crowds; but he was not going to let that stand in his way.
He climbed a tree.
We can only imagine the scene. People would have been pressing in on Jesus from all sides, having heard about his miraculous power and his wonderful teachings. Jesus would have been walking along, probably chatting with his disciples.
And then, Jesus stopped, and looked upon into a tree. Those close by would have wondered whether he was simply stopping to get a chuckle out of the fact that some strange little man was perched on a branch above the street.
But then Jesus spoke. "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."
The crowd was not impressed. Did Jesus not realize that the man to whom he was speaking was one of those hated collaborators? Did he not realize that to go that man's house, perhaps even to eat with him, was not good for his public image? Their grumbling reflected their perception of Zacchaeus, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."
As usual, Jesus was not particularly deterred by the grumbling crowds. He went to the house of Zacchaeus; he became the guest and the dinner companion of a sinner. In all likelihood, he broke bread and shared wine with him.
We have no record of what Jesus said or, for that matter, whether he said anything at all. Suddenly, however, we realize that Zacchaeus' life was changing in dramatic ways. In the presence of Christ, Zacchaeus' attitude towards others began to change. He declared that he was going to give half of his possessions to the poor, and to make sure that everyone who he had wronged was sufficiently compensated.
In short, Zacchaeus’ life was transformed in the presence of Christ. The grace that Christ extended to this socially disdained individual led to the transformation of Zacchaeus into a person of grace, a person of generosity, a person who wanted to share what he had with those in need.
Jesus' words to Zacchaeus hold tremendous significance. "Today salvation has come to this house."
The word, today, carries tremendous weight in this passage. It is worth noting that both times that Jesus speaks in this passage, the word is used. "I must stay at your house today", Jesus states, followed shortly by the words, "Today salvation has come to this house."
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the word today is often linked with the declaration of some momentous event in the presence of Christ. At the opening of the Gospel, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah about the promised One who would be anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and the oppressed, and help the blind to see. Immediately after reading that text, Jesus had stated, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Throughout his ministry, Jesus often used the word, until his dying breath, when he turned to the robber who was being crucified with him, and stated, "Today you will be with me in paradise."
The message conveyed by the use of this word is clear. Right then and there, reality had changed. For those in the presence of Christ, grace and salvation were not far-off, longed for experiences--they had come true in the present. Today, they had experienced grace. Today, they had been found. Today, they had been reconciled with God. Because today, they had met Christ.
Jesus continued to speak. "Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." This statement also held tremendous importance. Zacchaeus the collaborator, Zacchaeus the tax collector, Zacchaeus the traitor, was also Zacchaeus, the son of Abraham. With those words, Zacchaeus was being restored to his rightful place among his people. Jesus was making a profound claim--that Zacchaeus, this little man who was rejected and disdained was to be restored to community and reconciled with those who had looked down on him, both literally and metaphorically.
Jesus concluded with these words. "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." These final words, in a subtle but powerful way, turn this entire story around. As this story began, we assumed that Zacchaeus was the seeker. As it ends, we are invited to realize that it was not Zacchaeus who was seeking Christ, but Christ who was seeking Zacchaeus.
The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
And Zacchaeus had allowed himself to be found.
Throughout history, our ancestors in the faith have realized, again and again, that it is not so much we who seek God, but God who seeks us. In his famous Confessions, St. Augustine wrote of his own realization that it was God who was seeking him; and then of the transforming power that he felt when he realized that he had been found.
Late have I loved
O Beauty so ancient and so new;
late have I loved you!
You were within me, and I was outside;
and I sought you outside
and in my loneliness fell upon those
lovely things that you have made.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
I was kept from you by those things,
yet had they not been in you,
they would not have been at all.
You called me and cried to me
and broke open my deafness;
you sent forth your beams and shone upon me
and chased away my blindness;
you breathed your fragrance upon me,
and I drew in my breath and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you;
you touched me, and I burn for your peace.
There is a bit of Augustine, and of Zacchaeus, in every one of us, even today.
Every one of us comes to this place because we are seeking something. I know that I am. Every Sunday, I long for some new insight, for a renewing sense of peace, for some deepened awareness of the presence of Christ. Such is the nature of my own spiritual quest. And, for me, I have come to realize that being a part of the church is absolutely essential in that quest. And so, each Sunday, I come to church, seeking Christ.
And I sometimes think that I have the best view in the sanctuary for glimpsing him. I may not climb a tree, as Zacchaeus did, but on a weekly basis, like him, I do climb another wooden contraption, up a few steps into this strange little box called a pulpit. And to be up here helps me to try to catch a glimpse of Christ – or, at the very least, a part of his Body.
But there is something profoundly challenging about seeking to catch sight of Christ from this particular vantage point. So often, when I am standing in the pulpit of some church, looking out upon a part of his gathered Body, I realize that there is an incredible complexity to the desire to seek Christ in the gathered community of his followers. And there is an even greater complexity to the task of preaching in such a context. That complexity is found in the fact that, on any given Sunday, there are a whole host of different experiences, different needs, different reasons why people are seeking him.
And this morning is no different. Some of you are here for the first time, perhaps simply seeking to find out what being part of a church community is all about. Some of you are in the midst of struggle or sorrow, and longing for a touch of grace and peace. Some of you are in a place of stability in your faith, and bristling with that spiritual hunger to go even further in your faith. Some of you are wrestling with doubt, with despair, perhaps even with a sense that this God idea is hoax. Some of you have become indifferent to your faith and complacent in your relationship with God and, like Augustine, would love to recover a hunger and thirst to be touched by grace so that you can once again burn for that peace.
And the challenge for those of us who climb into these pulpits, seeking Christ, is the humbling challenge of knowing that our words are inadequate to touch every one of the different emotions and experiences that different people are going through.
There is nothing that I can say to meet every one of the different reasons why you are seeking Christ in this place.
But I can tell you this.
Each one of us is more like Zacchaeus than we know. Though Zacchaeus climbed that tree with the intention of seeking Christ, he discovered that it was Christ who was seeking him, who was seeking to travel with Zacchaeus to his home and offer him grace and transformation.
And so it is with each one of us. Each one of us may have come to this place today for a different reason. But what we are invited to realize is that it is not just we who are seeking Christ; it is Christ who is seeking us, who, like he did with Zacchaeus, wants to go home with us – even today -- to bless us with saving grace and transformation.
We may think that we have come to this place as seekers.
But the truth is that there is one who is seeking us.
The only question that is left to us, then, is this.
Will we let ourselves be found?