Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 30, 2016
The 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Year C)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Following Jesus

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Over last several weeks of readings, Saint Luke has presented us with stories about Pharisees and lawyers, disciples, an unjust judge, lepers from Samaria and Galilee, the fabulously rich and the incomprehensibly poor, each in some way exploring one, if not both, of two questions:

  • Who is called to discipleship
  • And what discipleship looks like . . .

Throughout these various stories, Jesus encounters people of all sorts and types, and yet his invitation is remarkably consistent – all are called to follow him.  It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or a Gentile or a Samaritan, you could follow Jesus.  It didn’t matter if you were a faithful Pharisee or an unjust judge, you could be faithful to God.  It didn’t matter if you were reclined at a lavish dinner or lay destitute on a doorstep, you could faithfully follow Jesus. 

Through it all, Jesus makes it clear that his followers are characterized by something other than their faith or culture or status.

As Jesus passes through Jericho, Jesus encounters yet another potential follower, a man named Zacchaeus.  Luke does quite a good job of describing him – more so than he often does!  If we remember nothing else about Zacchaeus from years past, we are likely to remember that he is noticeably short – otherwise, he may not have needed to climb that Sycamore tree!  But it’s not his height that matters most to Luke – it’s the fact that he was a chief tax collector.  He was rich.  And he was a sinner.  While his stature explains why he climbed the tree, it’s his status and lifestyle (“one who is a sinner”), and his profession (“he was a chief tax collector”) that Luke makes sure we know. 

For the Jew of his day, these were disqualifiers.  Tax collectors had conspired with Rome so as to oppress the Jewish community and compromise Jewish authority, effectively turning his back on his community and people.  As a sinner, he had pursued his own interest and turned his back on God and his faith.

You can appreciate that, to his peers, Zacchaeus had little hope of being redeemed, let alone of being a model of faith!

Of course, what his peers see is not all that Jesus sees.  Jesus sees not only who Zacchaeus has become, but who he always has been – a son of Abraham.  Jesus, unlike the others in the crowd, recalls who Zacchaeus fundamentally is – a son of the living God.  While the choices of his life may have obscured this identity, it cannot and must not be forgotten.  This is no different than the younger brother from the Parable of the Prodigal Son – while he had squandered his inheritance in dissolute living and had wandered so far off that even he could no longer see himself as a son to his father, the father does not – cannot! – forget this reality.  He may not look or play the part, but he is still his son, worthy of love and affection and honor.

So, too, we must say of Zacchaeus.  He may not look or play the part well, but he is still a son of Abraham, he is still a part of God’s people, worthy of love and affection and honor.

And so, with a bit of work, he too can life a transformed life as a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  But as Jesus has made abundantly clear to those wish to follow him, the path is not easy.

In the case of Zacchaeus, we see a few of the critical steps.

To begin, it involves repentance.  Following Jesus means turning aside from some of the old ways of our lives.  There is no other way.  Following Jesus requires an honesty that is sometimes difficult to muster as we must look with candor and humility at the choices we have made and the life that we live.  To follow Jesus, to take up our cross and follow the way of his life, requires that we look honestly at ourselves, admitting – that is confessing -- where and how we have hurt others, admitting that we often live solely for ourselves, admitting that we, like Zacchaeus, often turn our back on God and our neighbor. 

The Way of Jesus is not the way of the world, and we must choose.  Following Jesus requires that we look with candor upon our lives, celebrating to life-giving choices we make, but confessing and repenting where have gone astray.

The story of Zacchaeus, however, reminds us that we mustn’t stop there.  Confession and repentance are essential, but they are not the end.  The Way of Jesus is the difficult path of a transformed life.  It is one thing to recognize that there is a choice, it’s another altogether to live the choice itself, yet this is the life to which Jesus calls Zacchaeus and all his followers.  As Zacchaeus descends from the tree, he not only confesses and repents of the sin he has done, he commits to a new and sacrificial life.  He commits not only to restitution for those he has harmed, but to a life of generosity and sacrifice as well, giving half of all his possessions.

We will notice, perhaps, one other critical element of Zacchaeus’ story – an element of personal choice.  In fact, throughout the Gospel, Luke presents story after story of personal choice.  Like that young son who had lost his inheritance, it was a choice both to leave and to return.  Like the Samaritan leper who was healed, it was a choice to return.  And today, the story hinges on the choice that Zacchaeus himself makes.  He chooses to respond to Jesus call with repentance and generosity.  He chooses to come down from that tree and receive Jesus into his home, and to make restitution for the fraud and harm he has committed over the years.  He chooses to amend his life and follow Jesus.

Repentance, sacrifice, and choice.  There is no other way to follow Jesus.

But, there is one other thing.  Zacchaeus’ choice wasn’t the first choice made.  Before Zacchaeus chose to come down that tree, Jesus called him.  Before he chose to repent of the harm he had done and live generously for others, Jesus chose to see him as others could not – as a son of Abraham.  The generosity that Zacchaeus takes up is nothing more than a reflection of the generosity he has received.

The life we are invited to live as followers of Jesus involves repentance, sacrifice, and personal choice – it must.  But it begins with the generosity of God toward us – the generosity of God to call us, the generosity of God to name us as his heirs, and the generosity of God to pour out his life in love for us. 

As we move through the remainder of our worship this morning, hear again the remarkable love that God has for you –

  • that he receives your sin and makes like snow
  • that he has poured out his love for you, and would again if it were possible
  • that he blesses you with his love
  • that he fills you and calls you to himself.

Each week, we come together not merely to offer our repentance and to recommit ourselves to the life of sacrifice and generosity, but to hear again where this life begins:  God’s love for you.  God remember who Zacchaeus was and, in love, called him to return.  God remembers, too, who we are – and with equal love, calls us to return as well.