October 30, 2016
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
~Luke 19:1-10, NRSV
Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. Last year when we got our puppy Fin, we were thinking of Zacchaeus and a few other names that start with Z because he is from the last litter of his famous father, Pollux. And so the breeder asked that all of the puppies be named in a way that referenced “the end.” So we looked for names that started with the end; started with a Z. And although that idea was vetoed, and we ultimately named him Finale, I still love the name Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. In fact, a Google search of Zacchaeus, reveals that it is used only once in the public sphere. Only once, in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus is unique to Luke. It occurs at the end of 10 chapters that are colloquially known as Luke’s Travelogue. Much of the text of these ten chapters occurs only in Luke. And almost all of it features folks who are on the margins of public acceptance, stories about those who have strayed. Stories denouncing the Pharisees and the lawyers, stories about the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the dishonest manager, the unjust judge and a whole host of rich men and fools that the majority of not-so-rich-men (and fools) love to hate, love to call sinners. And so today’s story of Zacchaeus is the last in this line of what we might call “straying sinner stories.”
Elisabeth Kaeton (an Episcopal priest with a long and impressive resume of service to the church) – writes in her blog “Telling Secrets,” that this tale of Zacchaeus is perfectly placed around the time of Halloween. Because, she says, the whole story is about how we are tricked into treating Zacchaeus as someone who is……deplorable, someone who fails to measure up against the moral yardstick of the day. Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector, a term used only here in the New Testament. No one else is deplorable enough to be called the chief of tax collectors. It’s not bad enough to be a regular tax collector, like the one denounced earlier in the travelogue, praying at the Temple with a Pharisee. Here Luke adds a layer of disgust. Zacchaeus is the chief of the dirty rotten scoundrels who collect tribute for the Roman Empire.
Also from the get-go, we know that Zacchaeus is rich. Another knock against his character. In the ancient world where wealth was a zero sum game, where those who were rich always got that way at the expense of those who were poor. A rich tax collector was virtually swimming in sin.
And as the icing on the cake, many commentaries add that Zacchaeus was short. The text says that Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree because he wanted to see who Jesus was and, “he could not see because he was short in stature.” I think it is not clear whether the author is referring to Zacchaeus or to Jesus as short in stature. Some scholars think that this is an important slur. But we will not heap that particular sin, that shortcoming, as it were, upon Zacchaeus this morning.
Suffice it to say that he was rich and he was the chief collector of taxes. And so right off the bat we are led to think of Zacchaeus as a rogue who needs a change of heart. We think of him as we think of the Pharisees, and rich Lazarus who tosses a single coin to the leper at his gate, and a host of other Richie Riches in the Gospels who loot the public coffers and take advantage of those who are less fortunate.
So by the end of verse 2 we have a fairly poor impression of Zacchaeus. But he wants to see “who Jesus is” so he climbs a sycamore tree and waits for the procession. And when Jesus passes under that tree, Jesus looks up, as though he knows Zacchaeus is there, and he says, “Zacchaeus, hurry down out of that tree, for I must stay at your house today.” Can you imagine? There you are, perched in the sycamore tree like a kid hoping for a better view, or maybe seeking some camouflage, or both…and when the man-of- the-hour approaches, and he not only knows you and calls you out, but says that he intends to come to your home. “I must stay at your house today,” says Jesus. Not “I want to come” not “can I come?” but “I must come.” Holy cow!
And Zacchaeus scurries out of the tree and “joyfully” welcomes Jesus. No grumbling on his part for the unsolicited self-invitation on Jesus’ part. Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him. It’s the same word “joyfully” used by Martha when she welcomes Jesus to her home. Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ unsolicited invitation with joy! However, as the scripture says, everyone else grumbles. Not just the scribes and Pharisees who are the typical grumblers in Luke. Here, everyone is grumbling, disciples and apostles alike, and the crowd in general…..everyone is passing a mighty judgment on this rich chief tax collector whom they all take to be unworthy of Jesus’ attention. He is a sinner, they exclaim. Not good enough for Jesus.
And it’s easy to see their point. What is Jesus doing going to the home of this elite money-launderer? Why is Jesus spending his time at the home of this rich guy? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be focused on the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Not for nothing, but in Hebrew “Zacchaeus” means “righteous.”
And here is where we really need a good translator to properly interpret this text. Because the next line can make or break the way we hear the point of this story. In my humble opinion, I think the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one we heard this morning, mistranslates verse eight. The NRSV reads: 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.” Halleluiah, we think. Jesus has changed Zacchaeus’ wonton ways. His heart has been converted by Jesus. He was a rich tax collector, but now he is found, was blind but now he sees. Born again through his relationship with Jesus. It’s a story that I can imagine being used by the contingent of our Christian community who are most concerned with conversion through the acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior. The NRSV translation presents this story as a conversion story.
But the fact is, that the Greek verbs in this sentence are not in the future tense. The literal text does not read “I will give ” and “I will pay back” these monies in the future. Rather, both of these verbs in verse 8 are in a present active tense. They literally say: “I give to the poor,” and “I pay back four times what I have defrauded.” Zacchaeus is already a righteous man. He already shares his wealth and he makes amends if anyone is cheated. And he has been doing this all along.
Zacchaeus is not being converted, he is being a witness. And so when Jesus says “salvation happens in this house,” he is not talking about his own saving power, he is talking about the substance of salvation as it lives and breathes through the way this man has chosen to live and share with those who need his help. This is the only place in Luke’s Gospel (other than the infancy narrative at the very beginning) where the word salvation is used as a noun. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that “salvation happens here” because Zacchaeus conjures salvation by the generosity and hospitality with which he already lives.
Today is a watershed in this year’s stewardship season. It is the last day of our formal stewardship drive that asks each of us to help pay for the operating expenses in 2017 for this beloved community. And November 1st is the launching of our Capital Campaign to support and build our community in two important ways. First by renovating our climate system – replacing a creation-busting heating system (which was on its last legs anyway) with a much more efficient and respectful gas fired forced hot water system that will allow us to use our space with maximum flexibility and respect for God’s creation. And second to help fund a multi-layered plan of renewed and improved accessibility for our space. Both of these projects serve to put our money where our mouth is. That is to say, this Campaign is as much about our integrity as it is about funding some much needed projects.
Every year we ask folks from the community to tell their own stories of stewardship in the Voices From the Pews, and we will commence with that wonderful tradition today when Bernice speaks in a few minutes. But this year, with the Capital Campaign in the mix, I want to tell a story of my own that I had almost forgotten about until a couple of weeks ago when I got the announcement from the diocese that the Rev’d. Lyle Hall had died. Fittingly, on Columbus Day. Lyle and his wife Liz, also an Episcopal priest, are as much responsible for my standing here today, for my ordination to the priesthood, as is anyone else. They were my experience of Zacchaeus.
Many of you know that my trip to Australia with the Rev’d. Sr. Angela Solling was a transformative moment in my life. And many of you have heard me say that it was probably the single biggest contributing factor to my decision to seek ordination. But it was an unlikely happening, to say the least.
It was fifteen years ago last month. The year was 2001. I barely knew sister Angela, but I had agreed to write a book about her life and ministry. She was an extraordinary Australian…..woman…..sculptor….priest….nun….and founder of a monastery in the outback. Soon after I agreed to the project, sometime in August of 2001, Sr. Angela insisted that we go to Australia…immediately. And I mean immediately. She wanted to go within a month’s time.
But there were several very good reasons why immediately seemed to be……not the best timing.
First of all, we barely knew each other. And Angela was 75. She had a series of health issues that suggested that we might be better off waiting until either I was better informed and equipped to deal with her needs, or someone else who was better equipped to deal with them could join us. Also, it was the start of my third semester at EDS and I was not likely going to get an official leave of absence from school. So I would risk my academic standing if I just up and left without any formal approval or dispensation.
But even more problematic was the fact that neither Angela nor I could afford the trip…at least not a last minute trip. I was a student and she was a nun! And she was not just a nun, without any visible means of support, she was a Poor Clare nun. She took not only a vow of poverty, but a vow not to have any means of support other than God. So even if she could provide a string of friends in Australia who might be willing to put us up on their couches (and I was not at all sure that she could), how would we pay for the exorbitant last minute airfare?
Maybe we should wait until next summer, I suggested. Spend the year planning the trip and raising the money and we can go next July….like reasonable people.
But that, according to Angela, was out of the question. For some undisclosed reason we had to go immediately. So, I said to her (confident that this would never happen), if you can figure out how we can afford the plane tickets, I’ll go.
“Great!” she said. And she wrote a name and number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. The name was Liz Hall. Angela said, “Call her and ask if she will pay for the tickets.”
“You call her,” I said.
“No,” said Angela, “it will be easier for her to say no to you. And I don’t want to put her in a box. All we need are the tickets. Just call and ask.”
So I waited a few days, talking myself in and out of calling this complete stranger to ask for what felt to me to be a small fortune. Eventually I dialed the number. I got her voice mail, thank God.
“Hi,” I said….tentatively. “You don’t know me, but Sr. Angela Solling gave me your number and I am hoping that you know her. She wanted me to tell you that we are planning a trip to Australia next month to write a book about her life and ministry and she thought that you might be willing to help us fund the plane flight. I know this sounds ridiculous. But if you want to call me back, my number is blah,blah,blah. If not, please no worries. And I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
I know almost exactly what I said because I had scripted it, written it down, and said it into a mirror about 100 times before I actually made the call.
Within the hour my phone rang. And it was Liz Hall. “I’m so glad you called,” she said. “How is Angela? When are you going? What do you need?” Immediately I began to qualify what I was asking for. “Well,” I said, “for some reason Angela thinks we need to go immediately so it is a lot more expensive that it might have been if we were not on this cosmic clock. But we are thinking of the second week in September and two tickets are about”, I gulped, “$5,000, which I know is so much….”
She interrupted me “oh drat, I would love to come along but I can’t go in September. Never mind, I’ll put a check in the mail. Have a great trip!”
And sure enough, two days later, in my mailbox was a check for $5,000 from a woman I had never met, made out to me, a woman she had never met. And the rest is history.
I tell you this story because I learned some things from Liz Hall about giving that I would like to share with you today. First, she did not say, Why don’t you wait until the flights are cheaper and you can raise the money? She did not say, Gee I can contribute, but I don’t want to pay for the whole thing. She did not say, Send me an itinerary of the trip and a paragraph abut why you are going and what you hope to accomplish. Which is to say, she did not respond with any strings. Not a single string.
She offered the money because she valued Angela and her ministry in the world. She did not ask me any details of the trip. She did not want to know the specific itinerary or the reason or the rush. She did not even ask me to follow up with her on our return. It was enough to know that whatever came out of the trip would be well worth her investment. Because she was already invested in Angela and Angela’s ministry in the world.
And she was right. Because Liz Hall made it possible for us to go to Australia….immediately. And none of us had any way of knowing how truly important immediately was. Immediately made all of the difference. Because…..
First, we were booked on the 9am American Airlines flight from Boston to L.A., Flight 11, on September 12th 2001. And despite my pleading with Angela that we cancel the trip after the terrorist attacks, she insisted that we go anyway, and as soon as Logan opened up, which was on Saturday, September 16th.
The terror, the confusion and the sheer distress that was the context of our five weeks in Australia, put that experience in a whole new category for my own discernment about my call to the priesthood, and my own growth as a human being. I had never been so utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers…..for my shelter and my security and my sanity. But there I was, half way around the world with no guarantee that I would make it home. Stripped to my socks and at the mercy of my hosts, every one of whom joyfully welcomed me. I honestly think that I might not have pursued ordination without my experience in the Australian outback, without the life-changing fear and sadness that accompanied me on every step of my journey.
And the second reason why immediately was the thing is because Angela died of a massive stroke three months later, on January 22. Sometimes immediately does not seem smart or feasible, but that does not mean that it is not the right time.
I have thought of that first of twelve trips to Australia often as I have contemplated the seemingly breakneck speed of our Green Heat Project, which amazingly we started just twelve months ago. And there are good arguments for a why we might have undertaken a more extended process. We might have taken another six months to a year to have a more comprehensive community conversation. And we might have raised the money before we spent it. But I don’t think we could have done a better job of getting the right job done. Our boiler was on the last leg of its blessed journey in this life. And had it conked in the middle of the winter, we would not have had the opportunity to do such fine research and to weigh so many options and to make a decision that could be so carefully considered by both the Green Heat Team and the Vestry.
Not to mention that we were advised that the prices for this sort of work are rising rapidly. And the contractors have more than enough business to keep them busy. So waiting until 2017 would likely cost us whatever is the rate of inflation on this work.
And finally, we had and have the energy to make this project happen this year. We have a whole contingent of wonderful talented people in this community who were and are willing to offer themselves to this enormous task…..right now. And so, much like my trip to Australia, immediately seemed to be the right time…..the chill in the air not withstanding.
I have weighed most of my giving in the last fifteen years against the deep trust and generosity of the Rev’d. Liz Hall. I can say without a sliver of a doubt, that that trip to Australia changed me forever and gave me the grounding that I could not have found anywhere else to become the priest that I am. This year is the tenth anniversary of my ordination, and I think I have Liz Hall to thank for this vocation…..although she could never have known how that $5,000 would impact this life.
So this morning, as we contemplate our upcoming Capital Campaign, and in the tradition of the Rev’d. Liz Hall, I ask each and every one of you to consider making a major gift …whatever a major gift is for you and your family. I want you to know that you are needed. This community is here for and because of you.
This morning, I invite us all to be called Zacchaeus. Not Zacchaeus the converted. Zacchaeus the witness. Zacchaeus who joyfully offers his home to Jesus, just for the asking. Zacchaeus who defies the grumblers who judge him by his cover – by living generously, hospitably, and with nothing but integrity.
Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. I am hoping that we can change that together.
© October, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
1 Based on my own translation of the text with the help of Bibleworks 10.
2 And incidentally, a payback of four times any wrong is the maximum that the Torah allows.