Monday, January 9, 2017

Don’t Want Not Short People (10/30/16)

Niels Larsen Stevns, Zacchaeus

On October 30 2016, we examined the story of Zacchaeus. I can't hear this story without thinking of Randy Newman's song, "Short People." I also can't hear this story without thinking of my Aunt Laurie. She was very short, too, but that's only one reason why I think of her. Read on to find out more. 
Don’t Want Not Short People (10/30/16)

          Good morning! I have a question for you: How many of you recognize the title of my sermon this morning? Of course, you’d probably have to be over 40 to catch the reference to Randy Newman’s song, “Short People.” I’m guessing that one or two of you are over the age of 40, even if you don’t remember the song.
Randy Newman
          Every time I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I think of this song, and not just because Zacchaeus was short. You see, when I was a kid, my Aunt Laurie had a dog—he was a funny looking dog. His mother was a purebred Springer spaniel and the father, well, we’re not so sure. There were nine pups in that litter and no two of them looked alike. Laurie’s dog had really short legs and he looked like he was part Bassett hound. Aunt Laurie wanted to name the dog Zacchaeus, but the name didn’t take; the dog didn’t respond to that name. Instead, he was named Dudley, after the British actor Dudley Moore, who was also known for being very short. I should add that Aunt Laurie was a hair over five feet tall. And she hated the song “Short People.” This is one more reason why I think of that song when I hear the story of Zacchaeus.
          My aunt wasn’t alone. Turns out, a lot of people hated that song. Randy Newman was totally surprised by the reaction to “Short People.” He wrote the song as a statement about prejudice; he thought that the lyric was ridiculous and that people would realize that he was singing the song ironically. That is, Newman was playing a character in his song; a silly, bigoted character. And he thought that people would see through that bigotry and recognize that it was silly and understand that it was a song about prejudice. Most people got the joke, but some people thought that Newman was attacking short people. My aunt got the joke, but she still didn’t like the song.
          Now, as I think about this song, it reminds me less of the story of Zacchaeus and more of the Pharisee in the parable that Jesus told. I think this parable helps us to understand the story of Zacchaeus. In this parable, the Pharisee thinks that he alone is righteous, that he is more worthy than all other Jews. And certainly, by all outward appearances, he is. He does exactly what is expected of him, according to the Law of Moses.
          This parable is deceptively simple. On its surface it offers a straightforward critique of who is and who is not truly righteous. It invites us to read ourselves into the story as the tax collector. We come to church every Sunday—or nearly every Sunday—and we confess our sins as a congregation, and then we assure ourselves that our sins are forgiven. It’s easy for us to admit that we have sinned, at least in the abstract.  So, hey, we must be the good guys in this parable because we admit that we’re sinners and we know God forgives us! And that’s the trap! The minute we identify the good guys and the bad guys in this story, the minute we cast ourselves as the tax collector, that’s when we become the Pharisee!
          The Pharisee is both righteous and self-righteous. He is the agent in his part of the parable; he’s the one who is doing all the right actions. It’s all about him: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. The Pharisee believes he is set apart from all other people because he, he alone is righteous. Moreover, Pharisees believed that they had to be physically separated from all of the sinners and the unrighteous, as they could become contaminated by the sins of others.
          The problem is that the Pharisee believes that he is the one who makes himself righteous, rather than God. Remember the story that I told last Sunday, about the mission trip to South Africa and Lesotho, and how bored I was on the first day of the service project—I thought it was all about what I was doing there, and not what God was doing with me. I was like the Pharisee. “Trusting in oneself is obviously a posture of blindness to one’s position before God.”[1]
          The tax collector, by contrast, recognizes that he is unrighteous and there’s nothing he can do to earn God’s mercy. So he offers a simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s it. God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The tax collector approaches God in humility and asks for mercy.
The nature of grace is paradoxical: It can be received only by those who have learned empathy for others. Only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven. The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him.[2]
Jesus concludes the parable by restating the paradox of God’s grace: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
          The story of Zacchaeus offers an example of what this looks like. In the beginning of the story, Zacchaeus is trying to exalt himself! That is, he’s trying to climb a sycamore tree because he’s too short to see Jesus! This is very important. The verb, to see, has a deeper meaning in Luke’s gospel.
          The story of Zacchaeus occurs right after Jesus heals a blind man. Remember, too, a few weeks ago, when the gospel reading told the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. Yet after Jesus had healed the lepers, only one of them realized that he had been healed. That is, only one leper truly saw that he had been healed. Also, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is the only one who truly sees the man who is lying in the road, and then he reaches out to help the man.
          In Luke’s gospel, “seeing means more than just physical sight—it means on the one hand perceiving the opportunity to be merciful toward another, and on the other hand the recognition that God’s mercy has touched one’s life.”[3] At the beginning of this story, Zacchaeus has not yet seen Jesus. Yet it seems that Zacchaeus knows that there is something to see, something that is missing in his own life. And then, against all odds, Jesus sees Zacchaeus!
          Now I have no idea if the Pharisees would have scorned Zacchaeus for his short stature. But certainly, Zacchaeus was a sinner and the Pharisees didn’t want to be tainted by his sin—they didn’t want Zacchaeus around.  As a tax collector, Zacchaeus had to collect the taxes that supported the Roman Empire, and the troops that occupied Palestine!
          Collecting taxes was an ugly business. The Romans told each tax collector what he had to send back to Rome each year. The tax collector had broad powers to collect—or extort—taxes from the Jewish people. He could send soldiers to collect money or confiscate property. He could collect more in taxes than the Romans demanded and he could pocket the difference. Keep in mind that most people couldn’t read or write. If there was a dispute between the tax collector and an illiterate person, who do you think would win the dispute?
          So even if Zacchaeus had been an honest tax collector, everyone would have assumed that he was defrauding his own people. And it’s quite possible that Zacchaeus was cheating the other Jews. He was clearly a sinner! When Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus, Jesus calls out to him. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and commands Zacchaeus to welcome Him! This is how Jesus operates:
From the outset of Luke's gospel and throughout its narrative, Jesus sides with those on the margin, those considered down and out, those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out. By seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this one, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham...and child of God. Perhaps Jesus is again at work seeking out those who are lost (whether through their own actions or those around them) in order to find, save, and restore them.[4]
Zacchaeus was set apart from his community by his wealth and by his sinfulness, yet Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus and pronounces his salvation!
          Beloved, we live in a world where we are surrounded by self-righteousness! Nowhere is this more apparent than during our current presidential election. Now before any of you get nervous, I promise that I will not advocate on behalf of any candidate or political party from this pulpit. However, I do believe our political situation provides an example of how we are separated from one another.
          It’s very easy to see the hypocrisy that’s displayed by all of our candidates for office. And certainly it’s fair to question the inconsistencies between what a candidate says and how that candidate votes or acts. But it doesn’t stop with the candidates. We question our friends and neighbors and we hurl insults at people we don’t even know—if they support the other candidate.
          How many of you are on Facebook? Have you seen any political posts this year? Have any of you changed your mind because of a Facebook post? I didn’t think so. Yet that doesn’t stop anyone from posting. Most of those posts say something like: How can you possibly be so stupid as to vote for the other candidate? In this election season, it seems like we’re all Pharisees.
          Our broken politics isn’t the real problem. It’s merely a symptom of a deeper problem. We are separated from one another and we’re not doing a very good job of reconciliation. We’re separated by how much money and wealth we have, the neighborhoods where we live, by our religions, or for some folks, having no faith at all. And we view all these things as someone else’s shortcoming, someone else’s sin. It’s not our responsibility. We see all these things as a Pharisee would; we are separate, untainted by the sins of others.
          Yet we are called to participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation. As Christians, we must not seek to be set above or apart from any others. If we are set apart, then we cannot participate in God’s reconciling work. That’s a huge task and it’s scary. As I said last Sunday, and as we have said together in our corporate confessions and the affirmation of our faith, separation is sin. We see the consequences of that separation in empty churches everywhere and we are afraid to reach out; we are afraid to be the church in new and different ways.
          The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that there is hope! It reminds us that anything is possible with and through Jesus! Jesus offers mercy and grace to Zacchaeus, who is totally undeserving of mercy and grace. Jesus upends the expected order. Zacchaeus responds in faith: he sells his possessions and gives alms to the poor; he makes amends for his past sins. This is the exact opposite of the righteous (or self-righteous) acts of the Pharisee in the first parable. Zacchaeus’ acts are the faithful response of one who has received God’s mercy and grace. After Zacchaeus has been transformed by his encounter with Christ, he practices mercy and grace. We have to offer the same faithful response in the world.
          That work begins when we come to God in prayer and acknowledge that our salvation comes from God alone. That work continues when we reach out in the love and joy that we feel when we experience God’s mercy and grace. When we see God’s mercy and grace in our lives, we must act on it; we must share it with others. That starts right here in this congregation, but the real work must continue outside of these walls. It’s a huge task, but it’s not too big for Christ’s love! Thanks be to God. Amen!

          Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are all reconciled to God and to one another through the love of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. So look for the ways that you can be agents of reconciliation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 341.
[2] Culpepper, p. 343.
[3] Culpepper, p. 326.
[4] David Lose, “Commentary on Luke 19:1-10,” retrieved from:

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