This sermon was first preached at a hybrid online and in-person service of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, October 30, 2022.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
The Gospel of Luke is full of images of the lowly being brought up and those on high being brought low. Subverting roles. Leveling the playing field. Turning the world upside down.
We see this trend in Luke from the beginning in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, where a pregnant Mary praises God saying:
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich God has sent away empty.
We see it again, throughout the Lukan narrative. For example, while Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” message, in Luke we have the sermon on the plain. On flat, even, level ground. And instead of just offering blessing, like Jesus does in the Matthew version… “Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the poor in spirit…” in Luke’s version, Jesus offers both blessings and woes. Blessings to the lowly. Warnings and curses to those on high.
Luke tells us that the story of Zacchaeus takes place in Jericho. Maybe you know the story from the Hebrew Bible of Joshua and Jericho…when God empowered a ragtag group of nomadic wandering Israelites to knock down a fortress with some trumpet blasts. But what you may not know about Jericho, unless maybe you are a geography buff or someone who has visited the Holy Land, is that at 846 feet BELOW sea level, Jericho is the lowest city in the world.
Jesus was in the city of Jericho, the lowest city in the world, and Zacchaeus was desperate to see him. So Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus had done a lot of climbing in life, and not just because he was short. He was a Jewish person, living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. But he became a tax-collector, aligning himself with his oppressors and becoming very very rich. Zacchaeus climbed his way up the socio-political ladder in the Roman Empire, and he stepped on a lot of people in order to get there. Especially his fellow Jewish neighbors who he had exploited for the sake of his own wealth and comfort. Which did not exactly make him very popular.
Zacchaeus climbed his way up up up the sycamore tree just as he had climbed up up up the ladder of privilege.
Until Jesus looked up to him from below and said,
“Hey. Come down here.”
Because that’s where Jesus, an unhoused, radical Palestinian Jewish rabble-rouser, a threat to the Roman Empire…thats where Jesus was. Down. Down here. With the common people.
Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus and he said, “Come down here. I want to spend time with you. But you’re going to have to come down.”
So Zacchaeus climbed down down down that sycamore tree and played host for Jesus at his home. And like many people throughout scripture and throughout history, Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus changed him.
Zacchaeus had spent his life climbing the ladder, stepping up on the backs of others. And he came down and broke bread with Jesus. And his life was never the same again.
The notable thing for me here is that Zacchaeus didn’t just have an internal, personal change of heart. His life was not just spiritually different, although clearly that was true too. But Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus didn’t just change his mind, or his heart, or his spirit. It changed his entire life. It changed how he dealt with money and resources. It changed his relationships. It made a material difference in the lives of his neighbors.
Zacchaeus didn’t just start thinking the right things, having the right politics or theology. Zacchaeus said, “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.”
Zacchaeus, who had aligned himself with those on high at the expense of the lowly, finally recognized that his wealth was the result of that exploitation. So he gave away half of his possessions to those who had nothing. And to the people he had personally wronged, he paid back 4x what he had stolen.
Zacchaeus’ transformation wasn’t just about one part of his life. It wasn’t just in one realm or one area. It was a wholly integrated transformation. Mind, body, spirit, relationships, resources.
St. Luke’s has a long history of justice work in the community, of working hard to right society’s wrongs, to level the playing field. The work you are doing now to examine your welcome statement is another exciting chapter of that work. It’s an opportunity to take your values and commitments and instead of relegating that work to one or two committees or teams, integrating it fully into the entire life of your community here.
When you say at St. Luke’s that you welcome people, what does it mean? How do your encounters with Jesus affect what welcome looks, tastes, smells, sounds, feels like? Not just in hypotheticals or ideological ways, but in ways that are embodied and material. That require redistribution of wealth, rearranging of relationships, sacrifice. How does it make a difference in how you use your space? How is it reflected in your budget? Your hiring processes? Your calendar? Your liturgy?
These questions and more are questions you will be wrestling with together. And sometimes the answers might be so big that it feels like the world is turned upside down. Yet Jesus promises us that it is in these great reversals where we experience salvation.
Thanks be to God.