Grace Presbyterian Church
November 3, 2019, Pentecost 21C (All Saints)
Ragged Saints and Right Gifts
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason to live…
If it weren’t for the fact that Randy Newman didn’t write this minor novelty song until 1977, you might have to wonder if Zacchaeus heard this song one time too many in his life.
It’s not enough that Luke makes a big deal of Zacchaeus’s being a tax collector. In the culture Luke describes pretty much all along the way in Jesus’s life, being a tax collector was a surefire ticket to being hated and despised by, well, pretty much everybody. Even only a chapter before, in one of Jesus’s parables, we find a tax collector being lumped in with some pretty awful sinners – thieves, rogues, adulterers – by a super-righteous Pharisee. But that wasn’t enough; Luke had to tell the world Zacchaeus was so short he had to embarrass himself climbing a tree to see Jesus over the crowd.
But there’s something else true about tax collectors in Luke’s gospel; Jesus spends an awful lot of time with them. One of the first followers he calls is the tax collector Levi, the one known as Matthew in other gospels. After Levi is called, he gives a great banquet for Jesus, and a whole bunch of tax collectors show up. It becomes enough of a thing that the Pharisees complain about it; “why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” becomes their question as early as 5:30, and it apparently becomes a common enough complaint that Jesus refers to it in 7:34:
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
It actually works out pretty well for Zacchaeus to show up on this Sunday, both for the observance of All Saints’ Day in many churches and also as our own stewardship campaign approaches its climax. There is one hymn we could have sung today, the one that starts “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true…” and goes on to describe just how wonderful and perfect those saints are as well as all the jobs they did (not to mention the one who “was slain by a fierce wild beast”!). You can go remind yourself of that hymn at #730 in your hymnal.
There’s just one problem, though; more often than not our saints have a ragged backstory to them, rather like our Zacchaeus here. When Luke tells you not only that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, but also that he’s rich, you’re being led fairly strongly to gather that those riches were ill-gotten, as was rather often the case with tax collectors of the era working for the Roman Empire.
The catch is, though, that Zacchaeus is hardly the only such saint in our heritage. We get a suggestion in the hymn we will sing after this sermon and before the Lord’s Supper, #506, “Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!” Even as the “ancient followers appear” there in verse 2, we hear their own confessions of guilt and failure: “Peter tells of his denying Christ was ever in his sight; Paul relates his fruitless efforts to obliterate the light…” These are hardly the only such stories we could find in the Bible to demonstrate the clay feet upon which the saints walk. When we’re honest about it, we see that the saints in our own lives have their own feet of clay, and were, like we are, ragged sinners in need of forgiveness.
And as to that other occasion being marked today, isn’t it interesting that upon his encounter with Jesus, the first thing we hear Zacchaeus say is that he’s going to make right whatever financial wrong he has done? Or how, when Jesus called Levi, even as he gave that great banquet, he also walked away from all the wealth his tax-collector work provided?
It seems that when these ragged saints came face-to-face with Jesus, one of their first impulses was to know what was wrong with themselves in terms of wealth and possessions, and not only to know but to act on that understanding.
Those saints in our own lives, or more particularly those saints in the life of this church, seem to have been of similar mind. This is a small church, which I know pains many of you to hear, but it is not a poor church. The saints of Grace Presbyterian took care to leave behind a church that was well-supported and on a sound foundation. We would do well to follow their example.
That call to faithful stewardship also extends beyond the windows and walls of this church. Too many in our society have no chance, economically. When we go serve meals at Family Promise or St. Francis House, for example, many times meals need to be set aside for residents who haven’t gotten off work yet, sometimes from one of two jobs, and yet they’re homeless. We simply cannot hide behind some presumption that wealth equals virtue. Our resources must go out to meet those needs in the world, if we want to be able to face and follow Jesus at all with anything like Zacchaeus’s response.
Even the most ragged saints make their way to providing the right gifts. Whether or not we feel like saints, we can give like them. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #326, For All the Saints; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #726 , Will You Come and Follow Me