Sermon: Pick Me

31 October 2010

The Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

October 31, 2010

Luke 19:1-10

“Pick Me!”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

           Our story opens with something you don’t hear about every day - a grown man climbing a tree, craning his neck and doing all he can to create a sightline to Jesus.  We don’t know why it’s so important for him to do so—to see this Jesus, who some want to follow and others want dead.  We just know that for this particular small man it was that important just to see him.  So today we meet Zacchaeus, the last in a long line of outcasts that Jesus meets in the gospel of Luke along the road to Jerusalem where he will spend his last days.  And Zacchaeus really pulls all of these outcasts together.  As Kate Huey points out in this week’s “Weekly Seeds” UCC Reflection on this passage, he has the characteristics of so many who have come before him in Luke’s gospel seeking Jesus, being drawn to Jesus, perhaps even in search of some healing, and finding joy in a few words from the man of Nazareth.  Zacchaeus is clearly seeking Jesus out, like the blind man who is healed by Jesus just before he takes this trip through Jericho .  He is small in stature like the little children who are drawn to and welcomed by Jesus.  He is rich, like the young rich ruler who goes away from Jesus sad because he cannot fathom parting with his wealth.  He is willing to plead his case, like the widow who moaned and moaned until she was heard.  He is a tax collector, like those Jesus has eaten at table with and been challenged in the doing.  All of these figures come together in the form of a small man, whose name “Zacchaeus” means “clean” or “innocent”, who is willing to do anything to catch a glimpse of Jesus of Nazareth …even climb a tree. 

             The theories about Zacchaeus come down on two different sides.  The first, and most widely accepted theory about why this story appears in the gospel of Luke, is that it is a story about salvation and the role the faithful play.  After all, as soon as Jesus connects with Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus begins to make a vow about who he will be from this day forward, what he will do and give to be a better man.  “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.”  Many believe that this was Zacchaeus repenting for all of the awful things he had done as the chief tax collector – pawn in the hands of the Roman oppressors – one who had stolen money from people in their unfair economy.  And the theory continues that once Jesus hears of Zacchaeus’s will to repent, Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to his house – and that Zacchaeus has helped Jesus fulfill his purpose on earth in seeking out and saving the lost.

            The second theory about Zacchaeus is a bit different, though, and revolves around the translation of two verbs in the story.  This theory says that what Zacchaeus is really saying to Jesus is “Master, I give half of my income to the poor, and if I am caught cheating I pay back four times the damages.”  If this is what Zacchaeus said then this is much less a vow about who he will become than an argument for who he already is as a faithful and devout Jew, following laws set out for Jewish folks generations before in the call to take care of the poor and oppressed and to pay restitution in a case where someone is wronged.  In this translation Zacchaeus doesn’t have to repent in order to find salvation, he merely has to be himself – generous in the midst of an unfair economy, despite what others seem to believe of him - and accept the gift of salvation from Jesus as it is proclaimed to him and his household.

             So with two very different theories about Zacchaeus, and the purpose of his appearance in the gospel of Luke, the question becomes where we come down on this story.  Do we take sides?  Do we worry about who we most resemble in the story – Jesus, Zacchaeus, the grumbling crowd?  Or do we look at the story in a new light today – seeking what is said and lies within that perhaps is speaking just to us in this time and place?  After all, if we believe God is still speaking even today, it would be in our best interest to take a few moments to stop and listen.

            In thinking about this story, one that I have preached on before and in a very different way, I choose to look at it in a new light.  And, considering I am the one preaching, I invite you to come along with me. 

            You see, I have been thinking about the different sets of players in this story.  There is Jesus, going about God’s business as he heads to Jerusalem .  There is Zacchaeus, an underdog for all intents and purposes when it came to who God would want to stop and chat with along the road through Jericho .  Then there were all the folks on the side of the road, the hurting, the faithful, the interested, waiting and wanting so badly to see Jesus and to have a bit of face time with him.  I can hear them even today, whether in their thoughts or aloud saying… “I hear that you heal people.  Pick me!”  “I hear that you invite people into your small group of closest followers.  Pick me!”  “I hear that you invite yourself into people’s houses to know hospitality and be refreshed. Pick me!”  After all, these folks, the ones who end up grumbling and grousing about Jesus’s choice, deserved to get to meet, to know, to eat with Jesus…not that horrible tax collector.  And yet, here goes God again, turning things on their head.  So, for whatever reason, it is to Zacchaeus that Jesus turns and enters into relationship. 

            So what does this say to us now?  Well, we know for a fact that, although in some different ways,  the societies of ancient times were just as competitive and stressful as ours now – after all it seems that all of history is wrought through with power struggles, war, and one-upsmanship.  So just like in those times we find ourselves now saying those same words.  “Pick me!”  From the time we are little children at recess choosing teams and not wanting to be the last picked to the adults in board rooms pitching multi-million dollar campaigns and wanting to be the one who gets the bid, to all of those running political attack ads as we rocket toward election day, we are saying “Pick me!”  Our society revolves around competition.  I can certainly remember elementary school on the playground hoping that I was good enough to go early in the draft.  Or on the marching band field or the tennis court in high school and hoping I had what it took to get the solo or play first seed.  Or in the running for a scholarship for college and screaming inside my head “Pick me!  Pick me!  Pick me!”  (I think my parents were probably saying those same words!) Or going on interviews after Divinity School and exiting church buildings throughout the state thinking about rent and health insurance and saying “Pick me!”  We do this every day in our modern society.  We try to work harder, faster, longer, at whatever it is that we do – even at retirement – so we can be chosen in the grand competition of life.  My guess is that I would be hard pressed to find someone here who was not at one point in time picked last or passed over for something, no matter how well prepared or hard working.  So those words “Pick me!” are so familiar to us and our hearts.  We sympathize with those faithful folks who lined the road waiting on Jesus to change their lives. 

            And yet, in Zacchaeus’s story, the clear underdog – the one that no one suspected would ever get chosen is the one who wins the grand competition.  I can’t imagine Zacchaeus saying “Pick me!”  He humiliated himself to climb a tree just to see Jesus…he didn’t push through the crowd to parade himself in front of the Son of God.  So Jesus’s decision comes as a surprise.  And I am here to tell you, that whether you have ever been picked first or promoted or given the first chance at anything or not, this story tells us that there is one place where we all are chosen, where our “Pick me!” is met with a resounding, “Yes, of course…who else would I choose?”  And that is in God’s eyes. 

            Yesterday, today, in all our days, there is a place where we are named, accepted and affirmed like Zacchaeus – in the heart of God.  We don’t have to compete or put on our best face.  We are allowed to be ourselves – complete with the faults and failures of our lives as well as all the gifts and skills we can muster.  It is a place where God invites himself in and asks us to sit and rest a bit, to join him at table, and to be refreshed – where we are invited to open up and share ourselves – to know and be known by God a bit better.  It is a place where all of the dividing lines are broken down, and instead of needing to fight for our space or question whether we are good enough or not, we are invited to commit ourselves to the team.  Instead of asking whether we are deserving of this gift, we are asked whether we are willing to listen to, learn from, and follow the leader – whether we are open to being the hands, feet, and heart of God in the world.

            There are certainly questions that remain in this story from Luke’s gospel.  Why was it so important for Zacchaeus to be able to see Jesus?  Did he even know who Jesus was or was thought to be?  Did he have some deeper sense of who Jesus was that made him humiliate himself and climb the unclean sycamore tree – the fruit of which was cultivated to be fed to pigs?  And why was Zacchaeus the “one” for Jesus in Jericho ?  Did he come into town polling others about who needed salvation the most – and the response that came back was, “Oh boy, that little guy over there, Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector”?  Was he intrigued by the little man up in the tree, who due to the stature of the sycamore actually stood tall among the crowd?  The truth is that we will more than likely never know the answer to these questions.  But, due to the unknown, and our new look at this story today, the more pressing question perhaps here and now is do we feel like Zacchaeus – named, affirmed, and chosen by God to be about God’s work in this world and given the free and amazing gift of God’s saving grace? 

I would argue that it is then, when we can accept ourselves as being chosen for God’s team, that we become more accepting and accepted, more loving and beloved, more caring and cared for – not because we are any better but because we are more likely to share the gifts God has given us and to open ourselves up to accept others in return.  So this day, may we not grumble or grouse, but rather may we accept God’s invitation to open our homes and hearts to the One who has called us his own so we can be about the good business of being God’s people.  And may we know the freedom and joy that comes with never having to say “Pick Me!” again.  Amen.



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