For October 30, 2016
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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean just a little dislocated. Not “I know they live around here somewhere,” lost. I mean “really, truly” lost; “no real idea where you are and how to get to safety” lost; “afraid to move anymore, because to move might get you deeper and deeper in trouble” lost. Have you ever been that lost? I have and I will never forget it.
I was 8 years old and it was in the middle of the summer and we were at my Grandmother Hubbard’s cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. Grandma had ten children, and those ten children had lots of children, and because my mother was the youngest of the ten, my siblings and I were the youngest grandchildren.
On this day, the older cousins had all decided to going hiking, specifically to climb “Joe’s Knob,” a very high mountain some miles from her cabin. And the cousins had decided that “the little kids” were too young to go along. This did not sit well with me, and after a while I got myself a canteen of water and a peanut butter sandwich and snuck off to follow them. And I got lost. Completely, totally, “no idea which end is up” lost. And it was getting dark, and I was very much alone and farm from anything. This was deep woods, miles of nothing but trees and hills for miles in all directions.
Eventually I sat down on a log and just cried, and cried, and cried. I did not know what to do, or which way to go. I thought I was going to die out there – I really did.
Unlike me, Zacchaeus in our Gospel lesson doesn’t look lost, does he.? He’s got a very important job – he’s a “chief tax collector.” And he’s rich, very, very rich it would seem. He’s not very popular, not at all respected – otherwise people would let him through, let him see Jesus. But he is in an unpopular profession – legal but disreputable, like selling pornography or running a strip club or something like that.
So, there is a crowd on the streets of Jericho and Zacchaeus can’t see who it is that is causing all the commotion. Though we have learned the song that says “Zacchaeus was a wee, little man,” that might not be so. It could be that Jesus was the little man in this story. Both the Greek and the English translations allow for that understanding. Many in the early church read it that way as further confirmation that Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Rescuer, that most people expected. Rather than being a tall, strong, mighty warrior of God, maybe he was a short man, a “wee, little man,” who surprised everyone.
Either way, Zacchaeus could not see who was causing such a crowd in the streets, so he went ahead a bit and climbed up in a sycamore tree. Jesus got to that point and looked up into the tree and pronounced to Zacchaeus a word of Grace. “Hi there Zack, get on down out of that tree. I’m staying at your house tonight.”
I imagine Zacchaeus being so startled by this that he almost fell out of the tree. He knows who he is, he knows that he is a bad man, an immoral person, a traitor to his people. He has no illusions about himself. And yet this rabbi, this prophet, this faith-healer, this unique and holy man, has blessed him. By going to his house, Jesus has announced to Zacchaeus and to the world that he accepts and loves Zacchaeus. And Zack could not be more thrilled. He was “happy to welcome him.”
Zacchaeus was happy, his neighbors were not. Again with the judgement and criticism of Jesus, “He has gone to eat with one who is a sinner.” Over, and over, and over again we see this is the gospels. Jesus reaches out in love and acceptance to someone whom the regular “good people” of society would not be seen dead in the presence of – and the regular “good people” get all mad about it. Like it’s any of their business in the first place who Jesus hangs out with. They don’t care that Zacchaeus is lost, they don’t care that his life and his life choices have cut him loose – not only from his God but also from his people. Even though he, like them, is a son of Abraham, a person of the Covenant, a member of the Jewish community – he does not feel like it and they do not treat him like it. He has had everything he wanted and nothing he needed. He is a person without a place, a people, or a purpose.
And Jesus changed all that by stopping underneath the sycamore tree and calling Zacchaeus by name. Because, even though Zack did not know Jesus; Jesus knew Zack. And Jesus knows us. And Jesus knows those around us who feel themselves cut-off from God and from God’s people. Jesus knows who we are better than we know ourselves and Jesus loves us more and better than we love ourselves. Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has come into our midst to seek us and save us and show us the way to love one another, the way to come home. Just as Zacchaeus responded to the unexpected love of God by giving to others and making reparations for his sins, we are called to lived changed lives full of grace for others in response to the grace we have received.
I did, by the way, find my way out of those woods. Or rather someone came to seek and save a lost little boy. As I sank down in despair beside my log, grasping my empty canteen in my hand as a weapon to fend off critters – I first heard a voice and then I saw a light. I heard my Daddy call my name; over and over and over again. And then I saw a flashlight bobbing up and down through the woods, coming my way. And I stood and shouted “Over here, over here!” And in that moment, I knew what it felt like to be saved.
Amen and amen.
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