Come Down!

by Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

Being 5 foot two and having spent quite a lot of time in trees as a little girl, I have to say I feel a certain affinity with Zacchaeus. We had this enormous, wonderful old magnolia tree in our yard when I was about 10, and I would climb up there with a book and disappear for hours. My mother would come looking for me, calling for me, and I would stay up there watching the world (and yes, totally ignoring her)—escaping from everything.

And it seems Zaccheaus probably needed an escape from time to time, too. He’s not, shall we say, well liked. He’s rich, and he’s a tax collector—an occupation universally despised, because tax collectors were often corrupt and they worked for the occupying Roman government (and who in this history of time doesn’t love to complain about taxes and low-level government employees?)

But like many other outsiders throughout our Gospels, Zaccheaus wants a glimpse of Jesus. So, he climbs a tree.

There’s a whole new way of seeing the world, being in a tree. Nobody ever looks up. Nobody sees you. You’re isolated. From up there everything looks tiny and insignificant, and you can see much farther. You get a shift in perspective, as well as an escape.

And shift in perspective is exactly what this Gospel story requires. Because there is, actually, no evidence in our story that Zacchaeus was dishonest or corrupt. The Hebrew translation of his name, in fact, means “pure” or “innocent”. And Zaccheus himself has a telling word in the story: “IF I have defrauded anyone of anything”—the implication being that he hasn’t.

So the people muttering about Zacchaeus appear to be judging him unworthy of hosting Jesus, without really knowing him. It’s a very human thing to do – we’re all guilty of using a kind of mental shorthand just to get through the day. We tend to categorize people into boxes that enable us to make sense of the world, of other people’s behavior, and move on. That jerk that cut us off in traffic. That sullen looking teenager at the package store. That rude customer service representative on the phone.

That’s not a great thing to do, admittedly, but most of the time, we think these things briefly to ourselves and move on. But the people in this story “grumble” instead. They talk amongst themselves—about Jesus and his poor choice of companion, about Zaccheaus and how undeserving he is.

But throughout Scripture, God has never picked the people who are worthy, by our standards, of his fellowship. God has never been about rewarding only the deserving with His presence. In this instance, Jesus is quite literally “standing up for the little guy”.

And so Jesus says to Zaccheaus “Hurry and come down! I MUST stay at your house!” Jesus is urgent, and insistent, in his call. It is a call that (unlike my mother’s) Zaccheaus can’t ignore from up in that tree. Jesus invites himself to Zaccheaus’s table (which I can tell you is definitely not How Things are Done in the South)—because Jesus invites himself into our lives even when he’s not really invited. Even when we’re jealous or hurt or resentful or busy or impatient or some other not-so-great version of ourselves.

Jesus bursts into our lives while we’re watching from afar, and insists that we become active participants in the unfolding drama of God’s incredible story.

We know that when 2 or 3 are gathered, Jesus is there. And we certainly seek out God in times of need. But there are lots of times we’re don’t invite God to be with us. And yet, God shows up anyway, and calls us to come to table.

When I was a recent college graduate and had just moved to Northern Virginia, I knew pretty much nobody in the area. I didn’t have a church yet, and I was commuting from Centreville to Alexandria every day, which meant getting up at 5 am to beat the traffic. I was tired all the time, and lonely, and not sure of myself. And then a couple girls I knew from college who had also moved to this area sent out an email asking if anyone wanted to get together for dinner. We met at Maggiano’s in Tysons Corner in October of 1999. And we’ve been getting together for dinner every month since then. We’ve seen each other through 3 weddings, 5 houses, 6 kids, 2 divorces, 2 advanced degrees, more job changes than I can remember—and in 17 years I can count the number of months we’ve missed on one hand with fingers left over.

One thing I credit my Southern family with, is understanding that table fellowship breaks down those boxes we put each other in. What happens around a table is spiritual. We mostly don’t know one another’s story, and we almost never can. But breaking bread together is supposed to change us. It’s supposed to take us out of our boxes and make us more generous towards each other—make us see each other as the flawed, vulnerable, fellow sons and daughters of God that we all are. It builds relationships, and community. It changes lives.

And welcoming Jesus gladly, sharing hospitality with Jesus, does change Zaccheaus. Not necessarily from a dishonest tax collector into an honest man, but certainly from a rich man into a generous one. Zaccheus vows to give away half his wealth—enough to make a difference not just in his own life, but in the lives of those in his community.

In doing so, he reminds us that we are stewards not just of our financial resources, though our Stewardship Ministry would certainly like to remind you that’s pretty important, and your pledge cards should be turned in by next week! But we are also stewards of each other. Zaccheaus’ vow to give away his wealth after sitting down to break bread with Jesus brings him into connection with all those other people, those who would grumble about him. It changes not just him, but everyone in the story, as Jesus reminds them that Zacchaeus, too, is a brother of theirs, a son of Abraham.

Because that’s what Jesus does. Jesus calls us each out of our isolation, out of our own perspective, and insists that we come to table, and then join the community and become active participants in God’s story.

So, how can you join God’s story here, in this place?

This is where I think Paul’s letter is also, in its own way, a beautiful invitation. Paul talks about growing in faith and increasing in love for one another—something we strive to do during this Interim Time. He talks about steadfastness in difficult times—something we strive to be in this Interim Time. And he reminds us that it is not any of us who are responsible for whatever comes—it is not your Vestry or the RSC or even whoever is our Rector, past, present or future—it is God who will fulfill “every good resolve and work of faith”.

We are about to open a new chapter, yet another change in what feels like a sea of change over the past 18 months. And when there’s chaos and crowds all jostling with one another, we may want to step back, climb a tree, watch from afar. But next Sunday we will celebrate St. Timothy’s 148th birthday. We will rejoice in All Saints Day, remembering the long line of saints we come from and singing about how we, too, are God’s saints. We will comission a mission team to go out to Haiti to spread God’s love. And we will welcome a new priest, the Reverend Anne Turner, to join the journey with us on the road towards the calling of a permanent Rector. The amazing and wonderful story of God at work in this place continues, and it’s our story.

Jesus is already and always coming down our road. And we are all called, like Zaccheaus, to come down. Jesus MUST stay with us! He has invited himself to this table, to this community, and invited us all to a central place in God’s incredible story.

Amen.