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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

When Jesus Hung Out With Zack

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on October 30, 2016.

I was drawn to the lectionary text from the Gospel telling a familiar story that is often overlooked for its significance in the themes of economic justice.  Yet it is also rich with personal and relational insight into the love of God revealed in Jesus.  A wonderful young man at Mt. Level goes by the name Zack, and I expected to see him in worship on this day.  That gave me an extra motivation to shorten the name in the title to "Zack," as a way to honor my friend's presence and faithfulness. 

When Jesus Hung Out with Zack
Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I want to speak on the subject today, “When Jesus Hung Out with Zack.”  Do you mind if I teach for a while today?  I suspect you are used to that.  It is the way of this pulpit.  I’m going to elaborate on the interpretive process as I start out.  Sometimes we leave that work in the background.  Today, let’s bring it to the foreground.
When we read the gospels from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we tend to receive them as a complete package.  We often blur together the differences between the four gospels, and we just assume all the parts fit together easily without paying much attention to how they fit.
More careful reading of the gospels would lead us to think about the relationship between different parts of a gospel.  There is a flow of the stories, conversations, and speeches.  One part leads to another; one section lays the groundwork for understanding another. The one we read today is a narrative about Jesus’ travels, and in this narrative we find a conversation between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  There is also a third party to the conversation, who are the rest of the crowd who saw this conversation happening in public.
The gospel does not tell us all the details of Jesus’ visit to Jericho on that day.  So to be good readers of the story, we should pay attention to the details which it does provide.  For instance, it says Jesus came to Jericho.  Jericho was a major city in the Jordan River Valley, northeast of Jerusalem.  This detail links the story of Zacchaeus to the longer narrative of Luke.  It tells us that Jesus is making progress on his final trip from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Jesus has explained to his disciples that it is finally time to bring his ministry to its climax of standing up to the empire and the Judean ruling elite.  The conflict between the Jerusalem elite and Jesus has been growing ever since he began to preach and minister to large crowds.  He has had to stay away from Jerusalem in order to be able to teach and serve more people.  He has discouraged people from saying in public that he is the Messiah.  His colleague in ministry, John the Baptist, was arrested and executed, and he knew the powerful people who opposed John would love to do the same thing to him.  So for a time, he did his work at a distance from the capital.  He was training his followers, getting out his message, clarifying his mission, and building a movement.  Eventually, he determined that the preparation was complete.  Rather than stay indefinitely in the remote villages of Galilee, Jesus decided he should face his enemies and bring his message of God’s Kingdom into public confrontation with the kingdoms of this world.  On his way, he was passing through Jericho.
As this narrative was unfolding in Luke’s gospel, another encounter and conversation occurred on the outskirts of Jericho.  A blind man, who stayed alive by begging on the side of the road, had called out to Jesus, calling him Son of David, a name that showed he recognized that Jesus came as the Messiah.  At this time, Jesus did not tell the man to be quiet.  Many who were skilled in the study of scripture and could watch everything Jesus did, had refused to accept the thought that Jesus could be the Messiah.  This man, unable to see, but trusting what he was hearing, sees clearly who Jesus is, even in his blindness.  This blind man’s story repeats a recurring theme about those who can see and those who cannot see, and the irony is that the ones least expected to see actually see best.  He receives his sight and follows Jesus on down the road.
Zacchaeus also had trouble seeing, we are told.  In the midst of a crowd gathered to see Jesus, he could not get a view.  He had to climb a tree to be able to see.  Told here in a different way, we see an echo of the same theme.  The one who was least able to see may be the one who sees most clearly.
The story also tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector, in fact the head tax collector for his locale.  The taxing authority was Rome, an occupying army and imperial power.  Collecting taxes for Rome was viewed by the Judeans as treason.  Zacchaeus had gone over to the enemy.  He was enforcing the oppressive laws of the empire.  In addition, many believed that these tax collectors were dishonest.  They made their living by charging a premium on what the Romans expected them to collect.  Within this system, a tax collector might jack up the rates and overcharge the people as a way to get rich.  The story goes on to say that Zacchaeus was very rich.
In the previous chapter, Jesus had told a story about a tax collector.  Two people had gone to the synagogue to pray.  One, a Pharisee, was reputed to be righteous beyond the average person.  The other, a tax collector, was assumed to be rotten through and through.  But Jesus ended up praising the tax collector, who unlike the Pharisee, knew that he was a sinner in need of God.  That parable about the two people’s prayers again foreshadows the remarkable story of Zacchaeus.
By telling us that Zacchaeus was rich, this encounter becomes linked to one of the prevailing themes of Luke’s gospel.  The gap between the rich and the poor was of great concern for Jesus and for the gospel writer.  Chapter 16 ends with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, about greed and neglect of the poor.  Chapter 18 includes the story of a rich man who came to Jesus to brag about his righteousness and ask a question about what more he should do.  He may have expected Jesus to say, “You’ve already done it all.  You lack nothing.  Hey, everybody, look at God’s favorite.”  That’s not what happened.  The rich man was disappointed that Jesus wanted him to give away his wealth.  He went away.  Afterwards, the disciples were deeply puzzled by Jesus’ remarks that it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.  They thought riches were a sign of God’s favor.
Still puzzling over this, not really understanding how fully Jesus was committed to Sabbath economics and Jubilee redistribution, they entered Jericho.  Jesus went against the expectations of the crowd and singled out Zacchaeus, the tax collector.  Everyone grumbled about Jesus for doing this.  They didn’t anticipate what the result of Jesus’ visit with Zacchaeus would be.  I suspect the disciples grumbled along with the rest of the folks.  You and I would have grumbled, too.  If Jesus keeps criticizing the rich, why is he going to the rich guy’s house?  And if he is going to hang out with a rich guy, why the traitor and cheat, Zacchaeus?  It took them a long time to realize how thoroughly Jesus was turning the world upside down.
Continuing with this theme of unjust economic practices after his visit with Zacchaeus, chapter 19 shows Jesus next begin to tell a chilling story, one that highlights a contrast to what happened with Zacchaeus in Jericho.  It is a thinly veiled account of how Herod’s son, Archelaeus, became king over Judea.  He wanted to be appointed directly by Caesar, but before that could happen, he had to deal with a rebellion among the Jews.  The Herodian family was known for violence and oppressive rule, and he continued that tradition.  During Passover, his police force retaliated against their protests by killing 3000 of the people gathered for the festival.  Having done that, he went on to Rome and got his appointment as king.  Not surprisingly, he rewarded his friends and punished his enemies when he got back to Jerusalem.  Jesus points out in this parable that the opposite of the Jubilee happens in the world of empire and domination.  Those with much get even more.  Those with little lose what they have.  Rulers get rich by taking what is not theirs.  In the midst of this collection of stories, Jesus’ interactions with Zacchaeus represent a contrast.  Zacchaeus is unlike the rich man who came to Jesus, and because of turning to the way of Jesus, he is unlike the ruler who rewards his wealthy supporters.  When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he will demonstrate how a king can be an humble servant and a champion of justice.
I’ll finish up this survey of the details from Zacchaeus’s story with a couple more items.  Then we can get to the core of the message.  It says Zacchaeus could not see because of the crowd.  We recall from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee that he was often pressed by large crowds.  When he was tired, he sometimes tried to get away, only to find them waiting for him wherever he showed up.  Jesus’ reputation drew large crowds.  Moreover, as he made this trip to Jerusalem, he seemed to be gathering people along the way.  Remember that the blind man outside Jericho got up and started following him.  Soon in Jerusalem, the crowds will fill the streets with shouts of praise.  With so many people, Zacchaeus faced a problem.  He would have to figure out a way to get a look at Jesus.
The reason it was a problem is that Zacchaeus was short.  In a crowd of average and tall people, he could only see people’s heads and shoulders.  He could not see past them to the center of everyone’s attention.  An unpopular man, he would not be able to get friends to give him a boost.  So he figured out where a tall tree was, a very climbable, very large sycamore tree, and he made a plan to get a view of this famous man coming to town.  No doubt, he had similar questions and thoughts about who Jesus might be as did the rest of the crowd.  He at least wanted to get a look at him.
So we have picked over this story for its significant details.  We have found its links to the longer narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  We have identified major themes of the gospel of Luke that play a role in this story.  We have analyzed elements of Zacchaeus’s identity which help us to gain insight into the passage.  Perhaps you already find yourself drawn by the Holy Spirit to see how God can speak to you through these verses from Luke 19.
Still, I would like to hone in on a few relevant aspects of this story for our time and place.  What can the story of Zacchaeus say to us at Mt Level, in Durham, NC, at the end of October in 2016?  Let me offer what I see in this text.
First, this short, disreputable, crooked, despised turncoat Zacchaeus was in almost every way imaginable an outcast in his town.  If he grew up in Jericho, which is likely, then people there knew his family.  There were people he played with as a kid.  There were people with whom he had studied the Torah as a boy.  He and others had been to each others’ Bar Mitzvahs.  Maybe he never quite fit in.  Or maybe there was some turning point when he no longer felt it was worth trying to be part of the “in group.”
I recently heard an interview on the radio about the struggles young people face during their middle school years.  One person talked about the experience of feeling like she was always being left out of the best things that were happening in her school.  Often middle schoolers feel like there is a group of kids who are the cool ones, and then a few other kids who get to hang out with that group.  But many kids have this nagging, persistent feeling of being left out.  They always wish they could be best friends with the cool kids, but they never get in on what those cool kids are doing.  I certainly remember that feeling.  Maybe you do, too.
As the radio program continued, the speaker described her research from talking with other adults about their memories of middle school.  She had concluded that almost all middle school kids had a similar experience of feeling they were on the outside, of feeling left out of the group.  Even the cool kids seemed to have that same set of feelings.
Often, when people feel left out, they try to identify just what it is that sets them apart as strange, different, or unwelcome.  Some might think they don’t have the right clothes.  They might believe they live in the wrong neighborhood.  They might feel too fat or too thin, too short or too tall.
I don’t think we stretch our imaginations too far in relation to this text if we surmise that part of what may have led Zacchaeus to draw back from his neighbors was his experience of being shorter than most people.  I admit to having been pretty mean to some of my short friends back in my teen years, teasing them as a way to make myself feel more important.  It’s not uncommon.  There are even standard prejudices about short people:  some people say they are mean and resentful, or that they are inclined to try to control other people.  Some of us remember the Randy Newman song that satirized the prejudice against short people.
At some point, the boy or the man Zacchaeus reached the point of not trying.  He gave up on changing the way things were for him.  He decided to make his own way as an outsider.  He decided to get his revenge by joining up with a different power crowd.  Like so many young people trying to make their way toward adulthood and maturity, he felt shut out and alone.  All he wanted was to fit in, to be normal, to get to join in when people were having a good time.  Deep inside, he still wanted that, but he gave up on ever getting there.  Really, deep within, he wanted more than to fit in.  He wanted justice.  He wanted things to be set right.  He wanted to be in a world where people treated one another well, the way God made us to be.  But I suspect Zacchaeus had become cynical about all that.  If the others were going to shut him out of the community and friendship he longed for, he would just focus on helping himself.
Just helping yourself, just getting yours, has its rewards.  In Zacchaeus’s case, he figured out how to get rich.  It probably meant he had nicer clothes than most people.  He probably had a bigger house than most people.  He might even have been able to throw some good parties, where all the powerful people would hang out.  But based on this story, he was not satisfied.  Some kind of longing was still there, not too far below the surface.  He had heard about Jesus and wondered if he was the kind of leader who could help change the way this rotten world has turned out.
Zacchaeus showed no sign that he expected Jesus to actually talk with him or visit him or even look at him.   Rather, he seems just to want to get a glimpse of Jesus, to try to measure up what kind of man he was.  Somewhere inside was a glimmer of hope that Jesus’ passing by could be a sign that things would change.  But mainly, he figured that from his tree branch perch, he would at least be a distant part of something big that was happening.
The surprising turn in this story is that Jesus stopped and picked out Zacchaeus for a conversation.  Maybe he asked someone, “Who is that guy up in the tree over there?”  Maybe he figured out what he needed to know by looking Zacchaeus over—nice clothes, by himself, too old to be climbing trees, seems small.  We don’t have that information.  We just know Jesus shocked everyone.
It’s a great big crowd.  There are people there who may have made plans for Jesus’ visit.  Some of Jesus’ enemies were counting on a chance to try to make him look bad.  Some of Jesus’ admirers were hoping to have a chance to hang out and talk.  Some sick people may have come for healing.  It was a big crowd, but Jesus ended up under a tree talking with Zacchaeus.
This is the part of the story we know.  It is the part I was taught to sing as a four- or five-year-old.  Sing along if you know it. 
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he. 
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see. 
And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree. 
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down. 
For I’m going to your house today. 
For I’m going to your house today.” 
So what happened when Jesus was at Zacchaeus’s house?  Hospitality would dictate that Zacchaeus provided comfort and refreshment.  Maybe they shared a meal.  Certainly they talked to one another.  If we pay attention to what we have learned about the gospel of Luke and the placement of this story within it, we can probably get a good idea of what they may have talked about.
Jesus was deeply committed to a redistribution of the goods of this world so that there is no need among the people in the community.  This is what the economic system of the Torah had taught.  Moreover, it also taught that when things get out of proportion, as they will, there has to be a plan to set things right.  People who lost their land should get their land back.  People who go in debt and become indentured workers should have their debts cancelled and be set free to provide for their families again.  People who have become wealthy by victimizing the weak and the poor need to return what rightfully belongs to others.  People who have plenty need to share what they have with those in need.  From Mary’s song in Luke 2 after meeting Gabriel, to Jesus sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4, to the Lord’s prayer in chapter 11, and all the way down to chapter 19 and beyond, these economic ideas have been at the center of Jesus’ calling, teaching, and ministry.
We don’t know if Zacchaeus was really ready to hear that kind of talk.  Many people grew angry with Jesus over the months and years of his ministry when he started talking about a revolutionary economic change on the order of the Sabbath year and Jubilee justice.  Zacchaeus may also have resisted.  Today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 1 includes a well known passage in which God is calling Israel to a sit-down conversation.  The King James says, “Come, let us reason together.”  I am drawn to the New Revised Standard translation which says, “Come, let us argue it out.”  Zacchaeus and Jesus may have had some back and forth.  They  may have taken some verbal jabs at one another.  They may have tried to make their case with the best possible arguments. 
Whatever they said and did, however, what is clear is that it ended up with Zacchaeus having an encounter with the Living God.  He came to see that the way of God’s justice is the only path to arriving in that world that he longed for deep in his heart.  If he wanted things to be set right between himself and the people of Jericho, he would have to be ready to take the first step and model the way of righteousness.  The path to a just world is for each of us to live just lives.  Zacchaeus learned this in his encounter with Jesus.  He realized that there could be a better world, and he would need to be the one ready to make it happen.  By aligning himself with the way of Jesus, he would be part of the movement that the Spirit of God was spreading throughout the land.  Although some people in Jericho were sure there must not be any good in Zacchaeus, Jesus saw in him a marvelous creation of God, one whom God declares good from the foundation of the world, and one who by following and uniting himself to Jesus would become a leader of the called out people of God.  The Holy Spirit was able to reach into this corrupted, lonely, bitter, and damaged man to stir up the hope within him and restore the image of God in him.
We live in a world not so different from Zacchaeus’s world.  The gap between rich and poor is wide and growing.  People shut one another out and drive people who are different into dens of loneliness and despair.  Groups try to prevent other groups from voting.  Leaders lie and cheat to get riches and power.  We feel separated from one another and powerless to change things.  Our city is plagued by overpriced housing, low wages, underfunded and unequal schools, and challenges to our systems of policing and justice.  We sometimes feel it’s not even worth thinking about these problems.  We feel weak and powerless.  We feel like giving up and just looking out for ourselves.
But I stopped by today to retell an old, old story of a Savior who walked into Jericho.  It was a divided town.  The relationships were broken and polarized.  People were filled with resentment, hard feelings, and harsh words.  Some had great wealth without justice.  Many were longing for some kind of salvation.  And Jesus came to town and behaved in the most unexpected way.  He found the man most alone, most corrupted, most outcast, least loved—Jesus found the one who felt inside like you and I have felt sometimes.  Nobody wanted Jesus to talk to Zacchaeus, but Jesus does not see the way the world sees.  Jesus does not do the way the world does.  Jesus found this man way up in a tree.  It was a ludicrous situation.  Jesus called him down to stand on his feet.  He went with this man to his house while the town grumbled and griped.  He stayed there until the power of God had won the argument and changed the man.  And he brought him out changed as the leader of a transformation of his city toward justice.
Don’t you give up on God.  God has not given up on you.  Whatever you think can’t be changed in your life, God can make a way.  Whatever you believe can’t change in Durham, in North Carolina, in Washington, DC, remember that God can make a way.  God will come and find you up in a tree or down in a hole or out in a desert.  God has come into the world in Jesus Christ to seek and to save the lost.  You can’t get so lost that Jesus can’t find you.  He came to seek and to save.  Hang out with Jesus and see what happens to you.  Hang out with Jesus and see what kind of change is going to come.  Hang out with Jesus and find out where faith, hope, and love come from.  Zacchaeus tried it, and look who he turned out to be.  Zack tried it, and now his name is in the Bible because he opened his hand and heart to the poor.  You try it.  Have Jesus come to your house.  You won’t regret it.  Amen.

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