24 Pentecost 2016. Sermon preached by Intern Armando Ghinaglia
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s something about Zacchaeus that really resonates with me. But it’s not like I’ve been to Jericho, or climbed a sycamore tree, or been a chief tax collector, for that matter. No, no, you see, like Zacchaeus, I, too, am a short man. And like the tree in our gospel story, this here elevated pulpit really underscores the comparison.
All jokes aside, there’s a little bit of Zacchaeus in us all. Like him, the only way we’re able to rise above the chaos and confusion in life is by wanting to see Jesus. We may not know who he is, but other people talk about him—sometimes a little, sometimes a little too much, we might think—but the guy seems special.
Like Zacchaeus, once we see Jesus, Jesus doesn’t just stand there waiting for us to come close. He invites himself over to your house for dinner. The nerve.
You all know how much effort it takes to welcome a guest. Sweeping the floors, making the beds, cleaning up the living room, cooking the food. And here comes Jesus, inviting himself in.
But Jesus isn’t just a random stranger. Zacchaeus is trying to see who Jesus is, who it is that everyone’s been talking about.
Now, here’s a riddle. Zacchaeus is a rich man. Zacchaeus has some status in society; he’s not just a tax collector; he’s a chief tax collector. Imagine that in all caps on the name plate on his desk. Sure, his fellow Jews probably hate him. As a tax collector, he’s making money off the backs of his people to give to Roman occupiers. But back to our riddle—why does Zacchaeus even want to see Jesus? It’s not like Jesus is known for being warm and cuddly with the wealthy. And Zacchaeus is rich! By our standards, he’s probably got everything he needs in life.
Notice that the story isn’t about how Zacchaeus was sort of interested but figured, you know what, I could probably go home and watch TV right now or go read a book, or make myself some food. Zacchaeus goes through the effort to climb a sycamore tree—a giant thing stretching 60 feet into the sky. Imagine this tiny little man scurrying up the branches of this tree, just to get a view. This is not what people usually do when they’re bored.
Zacchaeus wants something. And he rises above the chaos and confusion around him, the crowds pressing in on every side, this short man rushes up into a tree, climbs into its branches…and waits. He doesn’t know what to expect—how could he?—but he’s hoping that what he’s about to see is worth the effort.
And when Jesus gets there, Jesus looks up at him, and invites himself in.
But there’s a problem: Zacchaeus is a sinner. Look at how the crowd reacts. The crowd isn’t worried that Zacchaeus hasn’t prepared for Jesus enough, that he hasn’t swept the floors or prepared food in advance. They’re not concerned that Zacchaeus hasn’t sprayed Febreeze to cover up the stench of his sin or that the Lord is going to be offended. No. Their concern is that Jesus, who they’ve come to receive, is going to eat with a sinner. Surely if this Jesus guy were smarter, surely if he were really a prophet, surely if he were the Son of God, he would know better. If Jesus doesn’t know the kind of guy he’s talking to, the kind of guy he just invited himself to eat with, maybe he’s not so wise or worth following at all. This, this is a tremendous faux pas, this is a big no-no. The crowd looks at Jesus inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home, and they see a man who’s contaminating himself. They see a man who’s supposed to be unblemished and unstained by the world, entering into the mud, entering into the filth of human existence. No one goes there and comes out clean. You cannot wade through a river and not get wet. You can’t walk through the sea and expect not to drown.
And yet, that’s not what Zacchaeus is thinking at all. Zacchaeus may hear the crowd grumbling and worry that Jesus is going to change his mind. Zacchaeus may worry that he’s not worthy.
Here’s the catch: Jesus already knows all about Zacchaeus’ failings and his shortcomings, his flaws and his sins. And Jesus invites himself in anyway. This is the light of the world who shines in the darkness and whom the darkness cannot overcome. This is the Son of God who brings the Israelites to the Red Sea and splits it in two to let them pass on dry land, who drowns Pharaoh’s army as it tries to hunt down defenseless, runaway slaves—the one who makes it so that an entire nation can wade in the water without getting wet. This is the one who takes away the sins of the world, who cleanses it and makes it whole.
And this…is what the crowd doesn’t get. When the sick touch Jesus, they don’t make him sick; Jesus makes them whole. When Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus into his life, Zacchaeus doesn’t defile Jesus; Jesus makes him whole.
Jesus doesn’t even say a word about Zacchaeus’ sins before Zacchaeus tells him, “look, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus gives up more than half of his wealth—half of his wealth—to the poor. Makes tithing look small by comparison, doesn’t it?
Back to our riddle earlier, what does Zacchaeus even want? To want something, to be in want, is to lack something we need or desire. Usually we know when we want something. If we’re hungry we get food; if we’re thirsty we get drink. But there are times when something is missing and don’t even realize it—until we get it.
In that sense, then, we don’t know why Zacchaeus first decided to climb the sycamore tree to see Jesus; in fact, he may not have known for himself. But we do know what he gets when Jesus finally speaks up, the thing that Zacchaeus hadn’t had until now: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation. Healing. Wholeness. Protection. Salvation that delivers us from our enslavement to actions and habits that harm ourselves and others; salvation that delivers us from the guilt and shame that make us withdraw from friendship with God and our neighbor.
In Jesus, Zacchaeus has seen the salvation of his God, and he cannot help but hurry down that tree to welcome God with gladness, despite his sin and his shame. God calls Zacchaeus down by name and invites himself in, and Zacchaeus is so overcome with joy that he acknowledges his sin and ceases from doing evil, paying back what he has stolen from the oppressed. And Jesus says, “today salvation has come to this house.”
Today we’re also here to celebrate little Jonathan’s baptism. And I’ll be the first to admit it probably sounds extremely odd that all our texts focus on the forgiveness of sins as we get ready to baptize a toddler.
As Episcopalians, we don’t baptize children for the forgiveness of sins because they inherit sin from their parents or because they can intend to sin. We baptize them as a reminder that God loves us first. We baptize them because we rejoice in the salvation that God offers in baptism and because we want to share that joy with those whom we love most, our children, whom Jesus calls to himself in the gospels. We baptize them because we hope to raise children who know, when they grow older and stray in a fallen and messy world, that their Lord Jesus Christ came to seek out and to save the lost. God’s salvation is the promise that the Holy Spirit who descends upon us at baptism will accompany us throughout our lives and will, as Saint Paul says, “make us worthy of God’s call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.”
As we approach Jonathan’s baptism today, may we, like Zacchaeus, rise above the noise and confusion of life to remember our own baptism and the times when God has sought us out when we have gone astray. May we, like Zacchaeus, always endeavor to see God, face to face; to invite God into the dwellings of our hearts; and to rejoice with Zacchaeus, for “today salvation has come to this house.”