October 30, 2022
Dearly Beloved, we gather here today to commemorate the life of Zacchaeus, a saint of the church. He entered the world protesting at the unfairness of his birth, and he fulfilled all his days as a variation on that theme.
He was vertically challenged, so he spent a lot of time climbing and fighting. He fought his siblings and never backed down from a fight. He was scrappy, adaptive, and wise beyond his years. His family was rich, and he built upon and expanded that wealth in his late teens and early twenties. He would have been a scourge on us, like a locust horde that would have eaten the crops down to their roots, had it not been for his first awakening.
We all have an awakening. A time that wakes us up to the larger world and larger realities beyond our control. For some of us, it was Vietnam. For others Stonewall, the Contra War, Columbine, 9/11, the babies in cages at the border, or the lock downs of March 2020. For Zacchaeus, it was his aging parents.
His parents were exceedingly attractive individually and together. Their love was palpable. They were active in their synagogue. They questioned Zacchaeus when he said he was going to be a tax collector and make money. They asked if he was comfortable in the way he would be making that money; namely through exploiting his neighbors for the sake of the Roman Empire. They asked good questions. Corrective questions. They were excellent in turning their judgment into curiosity.
Yet the aging of this parents and how they were treated by society affected Zacchaeus greatly. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “We do not count [someone’s] years until [they] have nothing else to count.” His parents were instrumental in the formation of Jericho becoming a center of business, art, and culture. When their beauty started to fade and the mental edge started to dull, Zacchaeus was astonished by how fast his parents were cast aside and no longer invited to community planning events.
Zacchaeus longed for a greater sense of community. A community that kept the elders and cared for them. A community that loved those with mobility issues and more. He knew at some level that we were missing the mark. There was a desire to form a more authentic and inclusive community, but he had no idea how to start. He continued to work as a tax collector but started to defy expectations and rules.
First, he under-reported earnings so that the taxes would be less. Those in his region got a tax-break of sorts. Especially the elders and the widows who were on a fixed income. He then started networking his community, helping people in need connect with others who could help. If someone needed transportation, he would put them on the route of merchants already on the way. If someone needed childcare, he set up an “adopt a grandparent” system. When someone needed help walking, he set up the physical rehab they needed. Just like his parents, he became a hub himself. A hub of community and connection.
Then came that itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. Zacchaeus was so excited to see and maybe even hear a parable from Jesus who was coming through town. He famously climbed that sycamore tree. He was always climbing and fighting, and he felt that this Jesus of Nazareth was climbing and fighting for similar things that Zacchaeus was.
Jesus stopped and looked up and called Zacchaeus by name. Jesus was bold. Bold enough to invite himself to his house. I am still in awe at that scene. To stop and look up and forge a creative kinship with the short guy in a tree.
Of course, the critics grumbled. They always do. No matter what you do, they’ll grumble. No matter if it’s playing sports when you’re a woman in the south in the 1960s and 70s like church member Rachel Evans did. They’ll grumble if you stand up for your gay child like church member Hope Wilder did. They’ll grumble if you try to feed school kids and work to give them clean clothes like church member Jackie Smith did. They’ll grumble if immigrate from another country, like church member Betty Palmquist did. They’ll grumble if you don’t do any of this, so might as well do what you want and try to make a difference.
“He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Well, who isn’t? Who among us does not have regrets or things that weigh on us? Unkind words and actions and things we’d do over if we had the chance. The Good News that Jesus came to preach about are things that matter: grace to yourself and grace to your neighbor. Forgiveness when you forget about grace.
Zacchaeus comes down and immediately pledges to give away half of his possessions to the poor. His parent’s dream had come true. That ill-gotten wealth from his younger days would now be gone. This was a big reason he was reconciled to his community. The vulnerability he showed then in showing his true colors… “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That sealed the deal. The community knew who he was. They saw him again for the first time. He was working from inside the system to try to give us some breathing room.
He saw an injustice and worked to correct it. There are those who yell and march and demand change. Those folk are needed. There are those who try to build bridges and humanize those outside the system and those within. And those folk are important. And then there are those who work to change the system from within, and that was Zacchaeus.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote, “In given historical circumstances, superior powers create systems of inequality and inferiority that bleed into individual lives. The ‘woman problem’ turned out to be sexism, not the supposed nature of women. The ‘Jewish problem’ was and is anti-Semitism, not Jews. The ‘Negro problem’ is still squarely racism. Now the whole world is said to be facing the ‘graying nations problem’: too many old people, sickly, unproductive, costly, selfish… The system behind the ugly ‘graying nations’ charges is decline ideology; stating point blank that people normally aging are ruining nations… This is ageism.”
Zacchaeus saw how Roman society put value on production and busyness. You either produced or you got out of the way and kindly died somewhere out of sight from the rest of us. Zacchaeus used that system of production to produce community. The foster care system. The health care system. The mentoring program. The childcare system. The familiarity of all people within Jericho. No one left out, no one left behind. He did all of that. He funded all that. He set up a system within the system that didn’t dehumanize and responded to human need and not corporate greed, and I believe it was the harder path. He saw how his parents were cast aside by society and he built a community here in Jericho that was inter-generational. The stories and lives of our elders existing side-by-side with the generations. The youth exposed to living history. The elders learning something of the world of the youth. For the young, the middle-aged, the elders… we all get the same thing: we get what everyone gets. We get a life.
Yes, in his younger years he was greedy and ambitious and caused harm. He was part of the bad in the world. Even after he left that behind, he was still gruff and scrappy and ready to fight. Sometimes he’d say an unkind word, and we’d have to not respond, leave the conversation and wait for his apology. Grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s what we do for all our saints. We might fight and disagree and have conflict and tension but at the end of their lives, we tend to forgive all of that and only focus on the love they gave us. For it is the echoes of their love that will resound until the end of our lives.
Standing here at the end of his life, we can look back and see the full story. We can trace what seemed like rabbit trails and chaos into some cohesive story. A story we might not have fully understood while we were living it, but once someone is removed, we are given space to reflect and look for the love and forgive everything else.
Once, a 90-year-old man lamented to Zacchaeus all the things he didn’t understand in the world. He didn’t understand the young, the queers, those of other races and creeds. He was raised not to talk about such things and at the age of 90 he found himself living in a world he didn’t understand. Zacchaeus said to him, “Our call is not to understand our neighbor. Our call is to love our neighbor.”
Truly I tell you, salvation came to this house. For Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham. A friend of the Son of Man who came to seek out and save the lost. And Zacchaeus spread that salvation to every house and life that has heard his story.
So today, may salvation come to your house. May you seek out an elder and learn and value their stories. You could do that by joining our Circle of Caring. May you mentor someone younger than you by signing up as a confirmation mentor or volunteering for Jesus Vibes. However you do it, may you forge connections, conspire community, and plot peace. And may salvation visit your house today. Amen.
 Emerson, “Old Age” page 319.
 St. Jackie Smith gave me this book, Ending Ageism, or how not to shoot old people. Rutgers University Press, 2017, page xvii