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19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Just Passing Through
Come by here, my Lord
Come by here. Today.
For us. Through us.
Mmmmm…we’re going to start this sermon out with a real “Kumbaya” moment, OK?
Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya, Oh, Lord. Kumbya.
And then the next verse, the English, “Come by here, my Lord. Come by here…”
That song has fallen victim to the campfire/nun-with-a-guitar/lets-hold-hands-and-sway stigma. It’s beloved because it’s easy, it’s quaint, it’s simple, at least on the face of it.
The verses are actually really haunting. “Someone’s crying, Lord.” “Someone’s praying, Lord.” “Someone’s singing, Lord.” The truth of the simple song is that it’s calling for a Divine response to those moments in life that are not simple at all, but complex.
Complex enough to have someone crying: over birth, death, loss, joy. Complex enough to have someone praying: for new life, for death, for help, in thanksgiving. Complex enough to have someone singing: for joy, in sadness…because sad songs say so much, in protest as they sing “We shall overcome…”
Kumbaya, that quaint little song, is a powerful little song for the complex situations that call us to ask God to “come by us.”
It’s actually a song of transformation, a song that begs for transformation.
It’s the kind of song in Zacchaeus’ heart, but he doesn’t know he’s singing it.
You know, I think that most of the spiritual issues with humanity happen at such a deep level, or to use last week’s example, such a phantom level, that Jesus, in his Divine wisdom, says and does things that throw us off kilter, that throw our filters all out of whack so that we can actually be impacted by what he says because our defenses are down.
Parables, these paradoxical sayings like “lose your life to gain it,” behaving in ways that were counter to the acceptable norm like touching lepers, dining with people who had bad reputations, teaching in the synagogues while touring with the laborers, all of these things threw people…and should throw us…off kilter because our normal filters that systematically process information just can’t handle that kind of strangeness overload, at least not in an organized way.
And we see it in this little story of Zacchaeus, a story that you all know by heart because you learned that little song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…”
A sad state of affairs when you’re remembered by scripture primarily for your height.
But Zacchaeus has, as a professional, a little system for figuring out his world. Sure, it’s a corrupt system of winners and losers, but it’s a system nonetheless, a system to filter all other things through. He can skim off the top; others do. He can defraud and cheat; others do. He’s allowed to live by these rules, even though they benefit only him; others do. It’s his filter.
And then Jesus, passing by mind you, not staying mind you, sees this one who is so interested in him that he climbs a tree just to catch a glimpse of this wandering rabbi, to hear him better, and decides to stay with him.
I thought Jesus was just passing through. Why is he now going to stick around?
Maybe he was, as the meme says, longing to hang so often with sinners so as to ruin his reputation with nice, church-going folks. That is, by the way, how you act like Jesus: hang out with the wrong people enough to become suspect in the eyes of the people the world respects.
But I think it was something different. I think he knew that Zacchaeus’ system, his filter, his way of doing life wasn’t working for him. And, sure, he could tell him all sorts of moralisms and platitudes and things that could make him feel shame, make him feel guilt, aim to teach him something.
But all those words, all those moralisms and platitudes and all of that, all of that would fall right through the same old filters that Zacchaeus already has lined up. And, for most people, those moralisms and platitudes and all that are generated from a similar set of filters, so it’s really the misguided leading the misguided.
That’s not Jesus’ way. Instead he does this thing that totally disrupts all the filters: he changes his plans to take up space with Zacchaeus because underneath it all, he heard the song that Zacchaeus was actually singing, a song that was betrayed by him climbing that tree in the first place: Zacchaeus longed for something different.
The longing was there, but the filters were strong, and so Jesus used a tactic that disrupted all those filters: he’d stay in the home of the one who others thought was no good, disrupting Zacchaeus’ filters, and the filters of everyone around him. And this is the same tactic that God has used again and again, by the way, walking with the ones who don’t seem to be a good fit: Abraham and Sarah can’t conceive, and God gives them the nations; Moses can’t speak well, and leads the people to the promised land; Ruth is a foreigner in a strange land, and God works through her for the good of the family; Mary and Joseph are unmarried nobodies, and God takes up residence in her womb and his home.
Why do we insist on filtering all this in the same old way the world tells us to? God is not about reinforcing our thoughts, roles, and opinions in this life, but about disrupting them. Because here’s the thing about God, while we may ask God to “come by here,” while we expect Jesus to just “pass through,” we dare not ask God to stay because if we do things will have to change in our lives.
But that’s what God just keeps doing: sticking around and changing hearts even when we don’t imagine it could be possible.
You know, we’re going to do some service work today, and I don’t for one minute want us to think that we are somehow bringing Jesus to these various places we’re going. At best we are Zacchaeus, Beloved. And this work is our sycamore tree. And we do it to catch a glimpse of the Jesus we hear so much about.
And we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus in the soup line, hiding under the couch at the thrift store, in the heart of the child at Families Together, sliding down the pole at the firehouse, on the streets of Raleigh that we’ll pray for today, or even homeless under the blankets that we’ll be making in the Fellowship Hall.
Because there is an underlying hum in all of us: a cry, a prayer, a song. And it is just begging for God to come near to us. And here, in this place, we hear it is true, and find it is true, feel it is true, taste it is true at this table. And the prayer and contemplation and sacraments and songs of this space are necessary for a full spiritual life.
But out there, in the world, that is where we find the trees to climb that give us a glimpse of the Jesus we’ve heard so much about here, we’ve sung so much about here, we’ve prayed to so much here. And it’s this funny little paradox that God uses: here we hear and taste and feel and sing the story of grace and feel compelled to serve others, and out there we serve others and get tired and need to hear that story of grace to continue on with the work, and so we come back here and listen to it again and become refreshed, and go out there and do it again.
And pretty soon we find ourselves, like Zacchaeus, having our filters rearranged, having our complex lives transformed because, well, we thought Jesus was just passing through and expected him to just throw laws and moralisms at us, but he keeps showing up again and again and again in our lives with grace and love and peace that we realize we are the ones just passing through, and Jesus is the constant.
So come by here, my Lord. And stay. Come into this house that we might hear you, and we pray our filters are disrupted enough, our defenses down enough, to find you in every single house, shelter, stockyard, and heart we ever pass through.