The Zacchaeian Encounter: Tell the whole story

A sermon about the wee little man

by Ken Sehested
Text: Luke 19:1-10

            It seems like we’ve turned to the story of Zacchaeus on several occasions during this past year. I was surprised when it showed up as the lectionary reading for this Sunday; and I almost chose an alternate text, since we’ve given so much attention to the “wee little man.” But I decided to stay with it, to see what new vistas it might open up.

            We’ve given a good deal of attention to questions of economic justice since January. Andy Loving, a friend from Louisville, preached for us in February when he was coming through Asheville, and he spoke about “The God of Maximum Return.” Andy is a certified financial planner and an advocate for socially responsibly investing; and his commentary was so stimulating that several of you asked if we could get him back, to help us think about how we can invest our savings in ways that support our values. He did come back in the spring, to do a forum on alternative investing; and quite a few of you signed up for personal consulting on how to align your investments with your faith commitments.

            During our family retreat, our children focused on the story of Zacchaeus—and also did some cookie baking with fair trade chocolate to learn about the difference between “free” trade and “fair” trade. Michelle Tooley came down from Berea to help us focus our Bible study on “jubilee” economics. And we learned that the Zacchaeian encounter is a theme in the Bible from beginning to end. We learned that an encounter with God—spiritual formation—has profound implications on both individual and corporate use of wealth.

Right: "Zacchaeus" by Joel Whitehead.

            What I’m calling the “Zacchaeian enounter” has been a theme for our congregation this year. We began the year working on a Habitat for Humanity house with our Jewish and Muslim friends. And we also supported house-building on the West Bank, contributing to the rebuilding of Palestinian homes destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces. We continued our long-standing support of Christians for a United Community, one of whose central goals is overcoming economic disparity; and we made a substantial contribution to the Living Wage campaign here in Asheville. We provided both financial and letter-writing support for Laurel Valley Watch, the organization that’s resisting the ecological and financial reach of corporate development in Madison County. And we even provided an emergency pastoral grant to one of our own members who was facing a severe crisis.

            One of the results of our family retreat Bible study was the formation of an adult education forum where participants are doing a “money autobiography” discussion to help each participant understand the way their family systems shape decisions about household spending. And before the end of this year we will add to our congregation’s modest savings with investments in microlending institutions that provide working capital where it’s most needed: here in Western N.C. through Mountain BizWorks; regionally through Self-Help Credit; and internationally through Oikocredit.

            One of my hobbies is words. I like to learn new words, and I like to make use of common words in uncommon ways. I’m often motivated to look up the root meaning of words, to see how they were used in their original context and how they’ve changed over time.

            Last week I stumbled on a word I knew but have never used in my writing. The word is “corporeality.” It means “having, consisting of, or relating to a physical, material body.” But then Mr. Webster’s Dictionary goes on to add the phrase: “not spiritual” and the word “insubstantial.” Suddenly I had a clue about why we get so confused about religious faith's relation to public affairs. According to vocabulary experts, to be “spiritual” is to be “insubstantial” and unrelated to “physical, material” things. The faith we profess, on the other hand, is a corporeal faith.

            This reminds me of the Family Circus cartoon on Mother’s Day several years ago. The two young children are talking, and the brother says to his sister: “I’m going to give Mom a ‘spiritual’ bouquet and use my money to buy me a catcher’s mitt.”

            We, on the other hand, are a bodified people. At the very core of our profession is this affirmation: That the God of the Bible is very nearly obsessed with bodies—and not just human bodies, but every part of creation. The corporeal implication of biblical faith is that questions of interpersonal integrity, of public economic policy and political decision-making, are questions of spirituality. The question is not: Do you believe in God? The question is: Which god do you serve? The “God” question is not a philosophical debate about the alleged existence of a Deity of some sort, of whether there is a Supreme Being that interferes in the “natural order.” The God question is a question about power. As Bob Dylan sang it so well, “you got to serve somebody.”

            So let me raise the question of spiritual disciplines: of practices, vows, covenants—all of these words are generally interchangeable in what I have in mind. And let me a suggestion on the table for your consideration: that at some point in the future, maybe even next year, that we as a congregation have focused and deliberate conversation about our common disciplines and practices, about the shape of our vows and covenant with each other.

            Four things about disciplines/practices:

            1. They are rooted in a revelatory experience and a transforming relationship. Remember: The root word for “disciplines” means “learning.” A discipline is what you commit to because you desire to learn something.

            2. Disciplines extend to every part of our lives—and, in fact, every one in this room is already engaged in a large variety of practices which are really spiritual disciplines—you just haven’t thought about them that way. Every church I know has a group of people (however formally organized or not) who make a point of visiting those whose medical condition prevent them from leaving home—the “shut-ins” as we used to say. Think for a moment about our culture’s most prestigious measure of success. It’s making money. When you’re unable to make money you’re pushed to the margin.

Right: "Zacchaeus" by Jan Luyken

            3. Disciplines and vows are that keep relationships alive through hard times. Think of the tender, persistent and unwavering care Blan has provided for Carol after her debilitating car accident. Disciplines are as essential way we come to understand who God is and what God is up to in the world. Disciplines are habits designed to nudge us off our beaten paths, into places we don’t normally go. We pay attention to the underside of life.

            4. It’s much easier to be faithful to our practices when we do them together. Accountability. Shared sacrifice. Plenty of times I’ve thought about not making my weekly Pilates class. But I have dear friends who show up for that, so I push past my reluctance because of them.

            The story in today’s text begins by saying that Zacchaeus wanted to “see” Jesus. Spiritual hunger is the starting point of faith. Then there is the surprising and insistent encounter with Jesus. The original language here is clear: Jesus went beyond the bounds of social etiquette by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Similarly, when we encounter Jesus, there will be challenging demands placed on our lives.

            Then the text says Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree “and was happy to welcome Jesus” into his home. Such hospitality will always be a hallmark of our spiritual journey. The text gives no clue as to what these two men talked about. It only reports the result as a confession of faith of Zacchaeus’ part: “Lord, I plan to give away half my goods to the poor. And I will return four-fold to all the people I’ve defrauded.” And Jesus said: “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

            Years ago the barber I used would sometimes ask me when I sat down for a haircut: “So, how’s the salvation business?” He wasn’t being disrespectful—at least, not to me personally. I think he actually liked it when I came in, and we always had great conversations. It was just his cynicism about religious institutions. I didn’t mind, since I have a fair bit of that kind of cynicism.

            I wish I’d had the foresight back then to tell him the story about Zacchaeus, and about the wee little man’s confession of faith. And then I would have told my barber: That’s the salvation business we’re in.

            Now let’s sing the “Zacchaeus” song many of us grew up singing in Sunday school. Only this time, courtesy of Stan Dotson, we have two new verses to finish telling the story.

            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, I'm going to your house today

            And as Zacchaeus climbed back down the crowd began to groan
            They did not think the savior should be seen in a such a home
            They did not know the wee little man was soon to be transformed
            (spoken) Til he said, Look, Lord, I'll give to the poor, and re-pay all my victims fourfold
            For today I've been re-born, today I've been re-born

            And when the wealth was freely shared and scamming was re-paid
            The Savior boldly told the crowd a miracle occurred that day
            The heart of the wee little man had grown four sizes from the call
            And he who once was short on love was suddenly walking tall
            He was suddenly walking tall

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