Do you remember what it’s like being on the edge of the crowd?
It begins on a playground, with everyone having more fun that you are, or in dreaded middle school cafeterias as you walk out with your tray, exposed. Our adult lives are not free of these insecurities, either, maybe you walk into a dinner party, into an event that seems filled with strangers, all of whom seemed to know each other and are having a grand ‘ole time. When I go to a conference, even when I know I am going to know people there, I still have that same odd feeling when I walk into a vast space that accesses all my latent adolescent anxieties – will anyone notice I am here? Or you walk into a church, maybe after many years, wondering why exactly you decided to come, but feeling something drawing you there? Everyone seems to know what to do and where to go, when to stand up and to sit down. Everyone but you.
The story of Zaccheaus, my friend Becca writes, is a miracle story.1 In last week’s text, as Betty shared with us, a tax collector and a Pharisee walk into the temple to pray. The Pharisee praises God aloud for how wonderful a person he is, and the tax collector simply falls to his knees: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. The humble is exalted and the exalted humbled. Then Jesus welcomes children, then tells a rich young man to sell EVERYTHING, give the money to the poor, then come and follow. Indeed, Jesus says, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
And then we’re there – one more parable after today and it’s Palm Sunday. But today’s text happens at the last stop, as the tension builds and crowds gather, in Jericho. We meet Zacchaeus, and are told 2 things about him: 1) he is a tax collector, chief among the publicans is the word in Greek. 2) he was rich. Contracts for collecting taxes in a region were farmed out, often to wealthy foreigners. They in turn hired locals to collect those taxes, which Zaccheaus did in Jericho. It was a massive system – taxes for bringing goods in, taking goods out, for selling and for buying.2 And the publicans managed those government contracts. Tax collectors are often simplistically depicted as greedy scum. And while I am sure some of them were, I wonder if some of them were like other folks you and I know who work for the government, get paid off government contracts. People doing their jobs, just like we do our jobs. Though I am sure Zacchaeus knew what others thought. I wonder if that created even more distance between himself and the crowd, him feeling caught up in this massive system, aware of its faults, but knowing it was how he provided for his family….
Maybe it was this tension that drew him to Jesus. He knew he wasn’t doing what he needed to be doing, but felt like there weren’t any options. Maybe the looks from his neighbors were weighing on him. Regardless, the Spirit stirred up something within him, and he was intrigued. But he couldn’t see, standing on tiptoes, crowds swelling. So he runs ahead a bit, sees a sycamore tree where Jesus was going to pass, and grabs a low branch, pulls himself up. But this move also brought him to Jesus’ attention. He stops, looks up, and says quite clearly: "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." And, without hesitation, Luke says, he did just that. When met with grace, changes course. "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."
It is hard to know what happened within Zacchaeus. We all linger on the edge of the crowd for all sorts of reasons. It’s tough to break into a new group of people, we show up carrying things with us, pain, losses, heavy loads, that don’t make us eager to jump in, even with people we know. We all feel some tension between who we are and who we feel others expect us to be. On this All Saints Sunday, it is important to note that a huge barrier to community can be grief. It’s hard enough to make your way into a crowd with a partner. But when the one you love is no longer there. When the grief of the death of a friend hovers, everything is more difficult. We stand on the edge, apart.
Yet it was the hospitality Jesus offered that opened up an entirely new way of being for Zacchaeus. Jesus invites himself to his house and Zacchaeus goes along with it. He doesn’t see the other stuff, doesn’t consider the implications for his professional life – which couldn’t have been good. He just welcomes. And Zacchaeus responds with a radical act of his own, offering to right the wrongs, exceeding anything the law required in terms of compensation. Even if it wasn’t stewardship season it would be important to note that he responded to God in a tangible, financial way, giving an extravagantly generous gift that would benefit the community and the poor.
All of which makes me wonder if we are a church that offers that kind of hospitality. We know that when we are on the edge of the crowd, someone reaching out to us can make all the difference. And so I want us to challenge us to pay particular attention to the kind of welcome we are offering. For those of you who teach Sunday school, or who attend – from the youngest children to all of our adult classes, how are people welcomed when they walk in the room? Who greets them? How do new folks find their way in? To our youth and our adult sponsors, what kind of environment would a youth find on a Sunday night? Would someone notice them right as they arrived, or would they wander up and find a few folks clustered in small groups, not paying attention to anyone else? What kind of community could we be if we were acutely aware of those lingering on the edges of the crowd, at worship or other events, and offered a gracious welcome? I am not talking about loudly greeting and glad-handing everyone you see. People come in for a complex set of reasons. It is important to size people up as best you can, and to listen. They might be eager to make 15 new friends, or they might just need 1. Please, I implore you, even in the midst of all the things I am sure you have going on, look around, look carefully, take note of each other.
This is all grounded, naturally, in Christ’s welcome of us – that begins here, at this font. I must confess that I was slightly dishonest with part of our Inquirer’s Class last week. As you 11 o’clock folks know, my dad baptized our youngest son last week. I don’t remember how the conversation got us there – we were in small groups talking about the theology of the Presbyterian church – but someone mentioned how nice it was that this was my father’s first baptism – he hasn’t been ordained long. I made some quip about how I was telling my dad not to worry about it, because baptism didn’t do anything, anyway. I was on the way to talking about how in the Reformed tradition baptism is the sealing of God’s grace, but the ritual doesn’t alter one’s relationship with God. God doesn’t love Wilson more, or claim him differently, that God did 8 days ago. And then I rushed in here, after a weekend of family and commitments, frazzled. As Monica finished her prelude I ducked out, upstairs, because I had forgotten to tell the sound guy that my dad was using Taylor’s mic. I was a mess. And then, as the first hymn was about to end it hit me. We then walked down and I stood, as so many of you all have, answered those questions, and then – when it really hit we was when you all stood up. And you made promises too. To welcome my son as you welcome all of these folks, baptized here and wherever, or not baptized yet. To notice them on the edge of the crowd, to get to know who they are, to love are care for them whatever may come, all the days of their lives. And I thought about how far our family had been in the almost five and a half years since we had last baptized a child, Heath, at the first Presbyterian Church in Burlington, and how you all had accompanied us, held us, so many of those days. And I was about to lose it, and Betty, kindly, gave me a little pat on my arm as we sat back down up there, as I wiped away the tears.
Because Christ’s welcome – to Zacchaeus or to any of us – changes things. And we have the chance to do that for others. Here, or at your school or your job this week. Who is on the edge of the crowd, lingering, waiting? Who will YOU be for them?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This insight comes from the Rev. Becca Messman’s great paper on this text at the 2013 gathering of The Well, Baltimore.
2. Background from The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p 900.