November 6, 2019 - Proper 26C
Our congregation has two Wednesday services--one in the morning and one in the evening--both of which serve as a principal service for those who attend. Whether because of work or health or mobility or family or emotional needs, they are people for whom Sunday-morning church is difficult. Because of that, we typically read the lessons from the previous Sunday, which usually govern our worship for the whole week. This week, though, is different. Because we observed All Saints' on Sunday, we need to use a different lesson for the midweek services, and I'm delighted to see that it's the story of Zacchaeus.
Today, I want to talk about people who are short. In particular, I want to talk about two kinds of people who are short: people who happen to be short and people whose small stature plays a prominent role in their identity. For example, according to unreliable internet sources, Beethoven was 5'3", but no one thinks of Beethoven as being short. Danny DaVito, on the other hand, is 5'0", and being short is part of his identity as an actor. Bruno Mars is 5'6". Dolly Parton is 5'0". Prince was 5'2". Their height may have shaped their stage presence and drive to succeed as musicians, but we don't speak about them as short musicians--just musicians.
Other people, however, are known for their short height either because they overcame it or because they utilized it. Muggsy Bouges, the basketball star, is perhaps most famous because he is 5'3", making him the shortest player ever to play in the NBA. Genghis Kahn, the Mongol warrior, was only 5'1". At least in part, they are known because they succeeded in a field in which one normally wouldn't expect a short person to succeed. Harry Houdini, however, used his 5'4" stature to become the greatest escape artist of all time. And today's gospel lesson gives us another example.
Zacchaeus was a number of things, and it isn't an accident that among the things we remember about him was his short stature. But, before we think about his height, let's also notice that Luke tells us that he was "a chief tax collector and was rich." That's like saying "wealthy scam artist" or "wildly successful arch-criminal." Tax collectors were traitors who worked for the Roman Empire--the oppressive, occupying force that had come into Palestine and demanded tribute from the people who lived there. Tax collectors made their living by extorting money from their own people, and the really good ones used all kinds of pressure tactics to squeeze ever last penny they could from others. A chief tax collector who was rich was like the wealthy person at the top of the Ponzi scheme who enjoys the comforts provided by effectively stealing from others.
That kind of identity made it easy for Zacchaeus to be labeled a "sinner." And his height didn't help either. Even though we know in our rational minds that physical attributes have nothing to do with how God sees us, biology and history and culture have shaped us in ways that lead us to look down--literally and judgmentally--upon those who aren't as tall, aren't as thin, and aren't as fair-skinned as we are. But in Zacchaeus' story, his stature became the locus of an encounter with Jesus.
Zacchaeus couldn't see Jesus. Luke tells us that he was trying to see who Jesus was but couldn't because the crowd kept getting in the way. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could catch a glimpse, and Jesus noticed. What kind of wealthy grownup would climb a sycamore tree in order to see a celebrated rabbi passing through town? Either someone who cared so much about Jesus that he would do anything to see him or someone who knew he could not fall any lower in the estimation of his peers and had nothing to lose. Either way, it became the opportunity for an encounter with Jesus.
We know how the story ends. Jesus stops and tells Zacchaeus to hurry down so that he can dine in his home. The crowd grumbles because the rabbi has chosen to eat in the home of a sinner. Zacchaeus declares that half his possessions will be given to the poor and anything he has defrauded he will repay four times over. And Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house because he, too, is a child of Abraham. But don't lose sight of how it all began. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he couldn't. Zacchaeus had nothing to lose and everything to gain. His humiliation in the eyes of the people made it possible for him to climb a tree as if he were a child, and his child-like action made it possible for Jesus to see him, and that, in turn, made it possible for transformation to happen.
When God comes looking for us, what is our reaction? Do we hide in the garden and cover ourselves because we are ashamed? Or have we reached the point where we realize that we have nothing to lose--that how the world sees us isn't the measure of our identity, that when God comes near we can risk climbing a tree in order to see past our limitations? In the story of Zacchaeus, both his height and his sin made it possible for him to meet Jesus. They are not accidents. They are integral to his salvation. What about you? God is coming to meet you--coming to dine in your house today--not because you're a good person, not because you're perfect, but because you are available, and you are available precisely because you are imperfect.