Many (or maybe even most) of us here know the story we heard in our Gospel lesson just a few seconds ago because it’s one of the most popular Bible stories out there. It even comes with its own theme song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” The scene opens on a short and kind of bad man who miraculously has a change of heart. Jesus ends up staying at his house, and then Zacchaeus gives away most all of his fortune because God is good. The end. The kids will love it!
But the drama runs deeper than that. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector. He was the chief of the tax collectors. This is a guy who got started in an entry-level position and decided to make his way to the top, no matter what. Except this wasn’t something as innocent as a tech startup or a fast-food franchise. This was tax-collecting. In occupied Judea.
Tax-collecting was not a nice job, to put it simply. It was actually one of the worst jobs and was typically occupied by the worst people, people who enjoyed taking money from their neighbors and giving it to Rome and then demanding a little extra for themselves. Zacchaeus would have been repulsive to his fellow Jews. He would have been banned from the local synagogue.
St. Luke doesn’t tell us much about him, but I think it’s fair to say that Zacchaeus was almost certainly estranged from friend and family alike, going home to a dark and empty house, night after night, never lacking in money but always penniless when it came to what is actually good and beautiful about life.
Zacchaeus had given his life and, arguably, his soul to a corrupt system, and the maze of deceit and pain that was his past and present would forever prevent him from getting out unscathed. He was in too deep. There would be no happy ending for Zacchaeus.
Or so everyone thought. Everyone, that is, but Jesus.
Jesus had just entered Jericho and was passing through. His face was turned toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaited him there, and yet he had business in Jericho regardless. Nothing Jesus ever did was without purpose. He chose to go through Jericho for a reason; and that reason was staring down at him from a sycamore tree.
You see, Zacchaeus had been seeking to see Jesus — why we don’t know — but couldn’t because he was short and the crowd wasn’t going to budge for such a nasty guy. And so Zacchaeus climbed a tree, not minding, it seems, how foolish he looked. Such was his desire to see our Lord. “And 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.’”
The whole crowd heard it and still couldn’t believe their ears. Jesus, stay at his house? Didn’t this wandering rabbi know just by looking at Zacchaeus that he was a scoundrel and a cheat and an enemy of Israel? And yet he would dine at his table. The idea was preposterous. Infuriating.
And it meant the world to Zacchaeus.
After all these years of people crossing the street just to avoid him, suddenly there’s this man — this Jesus — who did not look away when their eyes met, who called out to him as though Zacchaeus was a brother or a friend. In an instant, his world was changed forever.
And we have to wonder: What happened in that brief exchange that could transform a sinner’s life so utterly? What happened in the span of a dozen words, that Zacchaeus might go from tax collector to an emblem of generosity?
What happened but the grace of God! There was no justifying Jesus’ actions based on Zacchaeus’ character. This was just a bad guy in a tree. There was no hint that he had been getting right with God or that he had some latent aptitude for good deeds. No. Zacchaeus was the chief of the tax collectors and remained the chief of the tax collectors when Jesus called out to him. Such is the mercy of God, who seeks out and saves the lost because that’s just who he is and what he does.
Observe the gracious kindness of our Savior: “The innocent associates with the guilty, the fountain of justice with . . . injustice.” Having entered Zacchaeus’ house, the Life of the world turns on the lights and dispels the darkness of sin, suffering no stain from the greed and pride gathered there, but dispersing all of it by the bright beam of his righteousness (paraphrased, John Chrysostom).
In just one glance, Jesus knew what Zacchaeus had done; and he was still willing to walk into his home and abide there. And so it is with us today. Jesus knows all that we have done, all that we have thought. He knows what we have kept back. He knows what we have hoarded. And yet he loves us regardless, even when the heart he sees looks as shriveled and stubborn as a miser counting his piles of gold, coin by coin.
To us he says: “I must stay in your house today.” And every day. Jesus would open the doors of our hearts and enter in. He would sweep out the cobwebs and flick on the lights and make a home for himself within us, so that we might behold the Lamb of God and be saved. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
We never deserved such a gift. God in his justice could have decided to have nothing to do with us. And yet he does, choosing us over and over again, even when we fail. Even when we fall.
This is a truth that we need to remind ourselves of again and again — because it’s easy to forget. We so often doubt God’s love, thinking that God doesn’t care about me, or, if I just try hard enough, God will accept me. Those are both versions of the same lie that Jesus refutes by walking through Zacchaeus’ front door. God loves us. Full stop. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, Jesus would die a thousand deaths just to save a tax-collector. Or a prostitute. Or a Pharisee. Or you. Or me. Jesus gave of his own Body and Blood so that imperfect people might one day gaze upon perfection, not from up a tree or from behind some tall guy in a crowd. But face-to-face, as a friend or a family member.
St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus into his house. But I have to wonder: How much greater, then, is our Savior’s joy when he finds what was lost and brings it home. AMEN.
Sometimes I think God does just about everything in spite of us. We see that dynamic in the Gospel today, as a tax collector is made right with God, in spite of his sins. And as a Pharisee’s prayer goes unheard, in spite of all the evidence he marshals to prove his own piety.
The tax collector is someone who profits at the expense of his own people, supporting the oppression of an occupying army. He’s out of line in the morality department; but when he comes to God he speaks from the heart. He presumes nothing and simply offers up his awe and his honesty. The Pharisee, on the other hand, has traditional moral habits: doing what is expected of him, observing Sabbath and fast days, giving away in his full 10% tithe. Great! But despite all that, his heart is cold. We see that in spite of observing the law, the Pharisee isn't coming to God with sincerity. And in spite of breaking the law, the tax collector is.
Now, before I get them painted too black and white in our minds, let me point out that neither of these people is a caricature. Jesus is smarter than that, and it would be too easy for us. Parables are meant to challenge us, to put us on the hook to figure out how they apply. And we would really be off the hook if this parable were only a story about two stereotypes, two people none of us would ever imitate. That way we could look down on both of them. We’d probably go Jesus’ punch line one better and end up praying, “I thank you God, that I am not like either this good-hearted loveable rogue of a tax collector or like this tight-lipped self-righteous Pharisee, but instead I am an ordinary person who’s just doing the best I can.”
But that's what both of them are too. In fact, all you ever meet in the Bible are ordinary people who’re just doing the best they can, supported by the grace of God. The women and men of Scripture are human beings like you and me, who find their reasons, and make their compromises, and get along through the ups and downs of real life. So we can’t push away this parable by saying it’s about especially good or especially bad people.
In fact, Scripture usually hasn’t got much to say about people in our goodness or badness at all. Taken as a whole, it has a much more subtle view of human nature than that. When you look at the world through the lens of the Bible, you just don’t see a Good group over there and a Bad group over here. In fact, most of the time the Biblical lens directs your attention away from that kind of stereotype and simply asks you to look at God and his mercy. Scripture cares most about passing on the story of what God has done for us ordinary people in spite of it all.
I mean, look at history. Ask yourself how our spiritual ancestors acted in the Bible. They multiplied rules about not working on the Sabbath, while at the same time trying to shorten the holiday because the time off was hurting their bottom line. They hedged their bets by sacrificing to any local idol the pre-existing tribes would slip them the name of, while at the same time boasting that they were immune from disaster because they had built a pretty box where the only true God lived. They scrupulously followed regulations about leavening their bread, but had trouble getting around to sharing any of it with the poor.
And yet how did God respond, in the long run? He chose to dwell among them, to make them his own beloved people, in spite of it all. Yes, there were consequences to their mistakes (we heard some examples in today’s reading from Jeremiah), but God never turned aside from them. In spite of it all, he gave them alone of all the peoples of the earth his Word. He engraved their names on the palm of his hand and counted every tear they wept. From them he brought forth a Savior, in spite of it all.
So we Christians today, are we any better? Don't we do the same things? There are probably a million or so of us all over the world who are right this minute passive-aggressively resisting some call from God. We talk love and act apathy. We talk inclusion, but mostly just include people who are politically and economically similar to us. Compared to what we carefully set aside for our own comfort and leisure activities, for most of us our gifts of money and time to the Kingdom look paltry. Many of us worship idols, usually not by singing or praying to them, but by the much more powerful adoration of quietly living the way they tell us instead of the way Jesus does.
That’s about all we have to say for ourselves, this motley crew of ordinary people. But what does God do about it? He gives his only Son to win us to him, and fills us with his Spirit the minute we ask. He gives us holy places and holy moments, in spite of it all, and surrounds us with the beauty of creation and the wonder of love.
He comes among us every Sunday to feed and heal us in bread and wine. In spite of it all, he weaves our lives into a tapestry of memory, as we’re bound together by the baptisms, the meals, the funerals, the caring notes of support, the inconveniences, and the running jokes that make up parish life. God keeps on providing us the solace and strength we need, even when half the time we hardly even bother to gather it up and take it with us as we go. He never stops loving us, in spite of it all.
And whenever it is that we really hear that news, it changes how we think about things. It changes our response to God and to his church, and it certainly changes the way we give.
I’ve told before here the story of how I finally started giving to the church in my mid-20s, having until then withheld from God the whole area of how I spent money almost completely. It was true that no priest had ever had the courage to tell me that Christians are supposed to tithe, and hearing that and seeing the Biblical and psychological and theological support for it made a huge difference. But basically my motivation for suddenly making a pledge of 10% of my income having never pledged before in my life was that I had finally heard the news that fall that Jesus was real and the Holy Spirit was up to things in our world. I couldn’t say thank you enough, and I wanted nothing more than to be part of what God was doing.
And as we’re focusing this month on generosity, I can't help remembering that that is the way I’ve seen it work over and over again. In my 8 ½ years at Emmanuel, yes, but in every other parish I’ve ever been part of too. People who encounter God want to do something about it. Somehow a desire to respond is poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. They see and feel that with God there is more than enough, in spite of it all, and they want to say thank you.
People who were hiding in the back pews, wary of committing time and resources, wanting to leave the work to “them” (whoever they are) -- people like that hear the Lord say “I love you,” and the next thing you know they’re greeters and choir members and tithers and going to diocesan Synod.
And if you read through the whole New Testament on the subject of giving, you see over and over again the assumption that the only reason Christians would give their resources away is out of that kind of response. Because we want to. Because we’re overflowing with gratitude for what God has done.
That's what stewardship is meant to be. So I pray that when you make your pledge to Emmanuel for 2023, you won’t be left feeling either like a stereotypical Pharisee congratulating himself on keeping the tithing rule, or like a stereotypical tax collector feeling guilty about not doing enough. None of us is a stereotype. All we are is ordinary people, making our compromises, getting along through the ups and downs of real life -- but, by the mercy of the Lord, ordinary people who keep getting offered an extraordinary chance – a chance to throw caution to the wind and give God back one tiny fraction of the amount he has given us -- in spite of it all.
Jacob is preparing to cross the ford of the Jabbok river. He has sent his family and all his possessions ahead of him, and he remains on the near side to camp out alone for the night before crossing by himself. We didn’t hear the whole background this morning, but somewhere behind Jacob is his crooked father-in-law Laban, now estranged to the point that they brought in the lawyers. Somewhere ahead of him is his successful brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his birthright, also estranged. Jacob is not good at relationships.
So Jacob lies there in the dark, and with no introduction or explanation we get this brief sentence: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Especially if we have been reading about all Jacob’s family conflicts, we might initially guess that this man is his estranged father-in-law Laban or his estranged brother Esau, ambushing Jacob under cover of darkness to take revenge for how he treated them, but the text is going to tell us something else.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." This mysterious man has begun what turns into a protracted wrestling match. Jacob will not give, even when a precise blow puts his hip out of joint, a little reminder of human weakness. How long does Jacob fight the man? Six hours? Eight?
But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.
In Hebrew culture your name is, and manifests, your identity. Jacob is what his name means --supplanter, trickster. And if we haven’t figured out yet, the man is God. He hints at it in saying Jacob has striven with God, but he makes it even clearer in declining to voice his Holy Name in which is the power of a thousand suns. If we’ve read the Bible, we might even remember, now, that a few chapters ago Jacob was also camping out in the dark alone, and God came to him then too, and spoke to him about his destiny. And here God ambushes him again.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Peniel and Penuel are merely spelling variants of one town, by the way, so don’t get confused. This moment confirms the man’s identity again. Jacob has not just seen God, but he has held God, manhandled God, resisted and tried to overcome him, but nevertheless been blessed because God is just that full of unalloyed goodness. We don’t hear what happens to the man, but off Jacob walks, limping, as the sun comes up.
Now if you have been hanging around the church for awhile, I will bet that you have mostly heard this story referred to as Jacob wrestling with God, or in the words of the old U2 song, that “Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome.” And you’ve probably heard the image used to describe people deciding to hash through a problem they have and pray about it. But as I’ve already mentioned, and as is pointed out by the Anglican scholar John Goldingay, the Scripture actually says that the man wrestled Jacob. Same thing with the new name, Israel, that God gives him; yes, it’s about striving, but it actually means something more like “God strives, God persists” – Jacob’s not the subject of the sentence here either. God started the encounter, just as he started the previous encounter when Jacob was camping in the dark the last time.
But wait a minute: If this man is God, how on earth can Jacob not immediately be overcome by him? Isn’t God omnipotent? Surely he’s far stronger than we are. Well, of course. But this is the thing: God strives and persists, just as he has been doing with Jacob, to make us his own and to set us on the path of discipleship. But he will not do that against our will. He could. He could force us to believe in him. His Holy Name has the power of a thousand suns. The touch that dislocated Jacob’s hip could have completely obliterated him. But it doesn’t, because the God who has revealed himself to us is not like that. He respects us too much for that. He gave us free will and he will never violate it. He waits for us to yield, to let ourselves be overcome, to say yes.
And that’s what Jacob just won’t do. He fights all night to avoid doing it. He gets his blessing, but in the very next chapter he fakes a reconciliation with Esau, agrees to meet him again in a few days, and then runs off to a completely different city. God does not violate Jacob’s free will and he will not violate yours. He aims to win you, not force you. He wants your freely given love and obedience.
Humans constitutionally are like Jacob here. We constitutionally resist God. I think way more of us do it in passive-aggressive ways, rather than Jacob’s full body resistance. We get to the ford of the river and the mysterious man comes at us, but rather than let him engage us, we look the other way and keep walking. We politely say, “How interesting” and turn our backs. We just ignore God, over and over, in favor of keeping our sense of control and staying with something more familiar and comforting.
Some of you are probably in this situation right now as we go through this month of focusing on generosity with our theme of More Than Enough. I am sure that there are households at Emmanuel that God has been attempting to engage with over several pledge seasons so he can make them freer, more generous, and happier people. Which is why we really encourage you to pray before you fill out your card or your online form, to make sure you aren’t ignoring God’s voice, to help you reframe giving as an act of love and obedience to him, not something rote or institutional.
I am in this kind of situation right now too, by the way. I have 3 Sundays left as your rector, and the temptation is to look away from the man by the river I have to cross, waiting to take initiative with me about what I need to be doing spiritually right now. I can’t avoid crossing the river: All Saints Sunday is going to come, and the moving truck is going to show up. But I could, if I were not careful, avoid letting God engage me the way he wants to over this process and complain to him that I just have too much work to do right now!
This parish, too, will have probably more than one opportunity to say yes to God in the next several months. I hope you will try not to be passive-aggressive with him or to ignore him. As Bishop Burgess urged you a couple weeks ago, let God engage you in the interim period and let him win. Each of you. As he said, if you’ve been coming to Mass twice a month, make it three. If you go to one daily office, make it two. In this period of standing at the ford of the Jabbok, waiting to cross, when the mysterious holy stranger gives you a chance to engage him, take him in your arms and engage. Don’t accept the complacency that says, “Let’s avoid God and stay right here.”
Don’t get me wrong, right here is good. You are in a strong place as a parish with seasoned leadership. The work we did together last summer that created a new structure for two key ministries, Intergenerational Formation and Sacred Spaces, has produced more fruit and more new lay involvement than I hoped. You’ve welcomed so many households over the past, maybe five years. We’ve increased our amounts pledged by nearly 25%. The physical plant has had improvement after improvement. The music program has strengthened and stayed strong, and you have a superb staff in place. Things are going well. I don’t think God would have released me to retire if they weren’t and if it wasn’t an appropriate time to pass the baton. But churches don’t pass the baton in order to keep everything the same, they pass a baton to continue running the race.
At any rate: It’s the same in a systemic transition like this, it is the same in all the various calls God puts into our individual lives, it is the same in our own basic choice to belong to ourselves or belong to him. Whenever we like Jacob, come up to the fords of the Jabbok, we can ignore God and defend ourselves. God leaves us free to do that, and he will even bless us in spite of the ways we say no to his love. He is just that good. So sure, we can do that. Or we can come up to the fords of the Jabbok, and when we find ourselves met by a God who will not force us but wants to win us, we can open our arms, tell him yes, and cross the river.
“Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.”
I am going to date myself this morning and let you in on a personal fact: I like old movies and old tv programs. I don’t recognize the names of many of the current stars but give me one from the past and I’m all in. Jimmy Stewart is at the top of my list of favorites and one of his films has a great scene in it that relates to the morning’s lessons. The movie is “Shenandoah”, which was released in the mid-1960s. It is set in Virginia near the beginning of the War between the States. Jimmy Stewart plays the part of a widower farmer with a large family of six sons, a daughter and daughter-in-law. He prides himself in being a self-reliant individual. He and his family work hard to make a living and have no interest in the war going on around them. They own no slaves and do not rely on the government at all. His farm and his family are the center of his world; little else exists. It is as if he is on an island with no connection to the rest of the world or what is going on outside his farmland boundaries.
Early in the film the males come in from a hard day of work and sit at the large kitchen table to eat. The family waits for Stewart to give a blessing, and this is what he says in his very identifiable accent:
We cleared this land;
We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it.
We cooked the harvest.
It wouldn't be here—we wouldn't be eating it—if we hadn't done it all ourselves.
We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel
But we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we're about to eat.
Yeah, Jimmy Stewart in this role, knew he was to say thank you, even if the gratitude was slightly missing.
So, in looking at this morning’s gospel how does this fit? Is Jesus simply talking about good manners, or is there something more to this giving thanks?
The story Jesus tells today is brief. Ten lepers approach him as he is walking in the countryside. They recognize him and call out Master, have mercy. And with that encounter they are healed of their leprosy and restored to life among their community. This is a pretty amazing occurrence. And Jesus, the master, is the cause of this wonderful life-changing experience. And yet only one of the ten who was healed turns back to praise God and give him thanks. That one is filled with joy and has the awareness to acknowledge the gift he has been given. His expression is one of true gratitude, not a half-hearted thank you.
We are not told about the others. Perhaps they too were in awe of the healing, but quickly went ahead with their lives rather than stop to say thanks. Perhaps the busyness of regular life took over and they simply forgot to say thank you. Or maybe they did not see the great nature of the gift they had received. Or perhaps there is some sense of being entitled to that gift. They ran into Jesus so of course he would heal them. Why that nine did not express their gratitude is unknown. The point is that one did and he is the one we want to emulate.
Before we condemn those others, I wonder, do we recognize the gifts God gives us daily and take the time to experience their joy? Because if we do that, I think we naturally want to express our gratitude. It is not just the expected thing to do, but rather the true expression of thanksgiving.
There are times in all our lives when we are aware of the great gift that life is. For some, the pandemic was such a time. The birds seemed to sing more, the sun shone brighter. Not being able to be around other people made the interactions we did have more precious.
For some it was a time of appreciation and gratitude for life that we had overlooked so often in the past.
Of course, being human, as time passes, we often forget. Our minds become clouded, and we do not consciously experience the joy and wonder of God’s creation and God’s support of us. When we lose that awareness, it is more difficult to remember to offer our thanks.
It is for those times that we must consciously cultivate that awareness. Listing how to do that is not the major point of this sermon except to say the church offers us ways to do it. Part of what we do in this space in the Eucharist is offer our collective thanks for God’s presence in our lives. Eucharist means thanksgiving, after all.
The daily offices give us a space to reflect, even if just for a moment, on the gifts God has given us on that particular day. There are multiple ways to pause and see the joy God offers. My point being that gratitude comes naturally through that reflection.
There is a benefit of expressing thanks, whether to God or to another human being, that is more than good manners. Expressing gratefulness is how we are in a relationship; it is a way of connection for the giver and receiver. It makes a circle of sorts, giving and receiving, receiving and giving.
In the example of our gospel today, one of the lepers completed that circle by thanking Jesus. The connection was made between them when he prostrated himself and expressed his awe-filled gratitude to Jesus. First the healing was extended by Jesus, but the bond was formed by the man’s return of Jesus’ gift through his praise of what a glorious thing Jesus had done. That leper gave thanks with his whole heart as the psalm today said.
There were others who had received the same healing but who lost the opportunity of forming a relationship by their lack of expressed gratitude.
Saying thank you, expressing gratitude for a kindness given, forms that connection which allows a relationship to happen. This is true for both human relationships and for our relationship with God. When we offer our thanks, we affirm the importance of others. We understand we are not the only one in creation that matter. When we acknowledge what the other has done for us our relationship grows.
(Even Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah eventually understood gratitude for God’s gifts in his life, though not without much suffering.)
As Bishop Burgess mentioned last week, October is the month that many churches’ focus on stewardship. You have probably received a letter this week from Emmanuel encouraging you to think about the gifts God has given you and to pray about how you will tangibly thank God for those gifts this year. This is completing that circle of giving and receiving. Our relationship with God is deepened when we offer our gratitude for what He has given us.
Additionally for the next few weeks, there will be an insert in the bulletin offering thoughts on the lessons of the day and the principles of Christian stewardship. Traditionally in the Episcopal Church we have used the phrase of time, talent, and treasure to talk about how we can give back to God. The point being that offering our gratitude to God involves our whole being, not just our money. The writer of today’s insert adds a fourth word to that phrase of time, talent, and treasure. I encourage you to read the insert to find out what that 4th term is!
Being here in this place this morning is an acknowledgement of our collective thanks for the gift of life. As we continue our worship today may we engage our hearts with a true spirit of gratitude.
May we hear and say the words of the liturgy together as a reminder of the gratitude each of us has within our being and truly offer our thanks to God.
To assist in waking up that spirit of gratitude let us take today’s bulletin and read again psalm 111 together in unison.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
In the assembly of the upright in the congregation.
Great are the deeds of the Lord!
They are studied by all who delight in them.
His work is full of majesty and splendor,
And his righteousness endures for ever.
He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
He gives food to those who fear him;
He is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works
In giving them the lands of the nations.
The works of his hand faithfulness and justice;
All his commandments are sure.
They stand fast for ever and ever,
Because they are done in truth and equity.
He sent redemption to his people;
He commanded his covenant for ever;
Holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
Those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
His praise endures for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.