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"Saint Zacchaeus?" Luke 19:1-10

The church often treats the story of Zacchaeus as a children’s story.  If you grew up going to Sunday Church School, you may have learned this song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”  I learned the story in second grade, and the main lesson was that Jesus did not overlook Zacchaeus because of his “disability” of being so short and unable to see.  I was a tall child, so I understood the message that I would need to stand in the back row every time the Children’s Choir sang.   I accepted the basic fairness of this lesson, that Jesus loved us even though we were still little people, and would still love us even if we didn’t grow up to be big and tall.


So the most important characteristic of Zacchaeus in a children’s story is that he was short.  Now here is something that blows my mind.  The scriptures say that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus because of the crowd, and he was short of stature.  Does this last he refer to Zacchaeus or Jesus?   Which man is the short man?  Or how about this.  Does “short of stature” refer to height, or was Zacchaeus short on social stature, therefore unable to penetrate the crowd? 


Since this insight was rearranging my entire childhood self-understanding, I decided to probe a little further into so translation issues and found another stunning, Greek Geek insight.  Here in the NRSV that we read, there is a tense moment when people are murmuring that Jesus is going to eat at a house of a sinner, and a wealthy sinner at that.  “There goes Jesus, all high and mighty now, our food isn’t good enough for him.  I guess he has his price, some messiah he turned out to be.”  Now Zacchaeus may be short, (or not) but he is not hard of hearing.  So he turns and addresses the crowd, “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.”  Note that it is future tense.  (We learned how important verb tense is this week from White House spokesman Jay Carney.  “We are not and will not listen to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.”).   Let the past be the past.  Zacchaeus will give.  That is quite a gesture.  I’m so glad he is being generous-with tax payer money. 


Let’s turn this into a grown up and perhaps modern story.  For grownups, the most important detail about Zacchaeus is not his height, but the fact that he is a tax collector.  We talked about tax collectors last week, hated because they were collaborators with Roman Imperialism and rampantly corrupt, almost like mob bosses.  And he is the chief tax collector.  So who would be up in the tree now, with say, the new Pope Francis, a lover of the poor, coming to New York City?  How about Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan bank, just fined $13 billion for the bank’s role in the financial crisis.  Pocket change really. And only one of many investigation with commodities manipulation, and not reporting Bernie Madoff still to come.  Imagine if he had just gone straight to the Pope and come clean. 


Or imagine if the Pope saw John Thain, former head of Merrill Lynch, climbing the tree in Central Park to get a better view.  You may remember Thain spent over $1 million redecorating his office at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.  Pope Francis is going to John Thain’s house for dinner?  What will Cardinal Dolan think?  Eat your heart out Elizabeth Warren.  (That is who I want Pope Francis to eat dinner with.)  Oh wait, John Thain is giving his $68,000 oriental rug, and his 19th century Credenza and George IV desk to auction off for AIDs orphans in Africa.  In fact, half his future dividends will go to Head Start programs, and if he ever finds any fraud on his books, he will repay it four times (which might bail out the US economy in one move.)  Truly salvation has come today!


Would such a bold move by Zacchaeus have similarly stunned the crowd around Jesus?  That is truly a repentant sinner.  Was Jesus just that powerful of a presence?  Did he have some great insight into the soul of Zacchaeus?  So many questions fill my mind at this profound turnaround.  Here is another possibility, based on a translation issue.  Remember the “I will give…” phrase in the NRSV?  But let’s look at the RSV and KJV, where the verb is translated in the progressive present tense. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”   The Greek verb tense could infer that Zacchaeus always does this-gives to the poor and if he makes an accounting error he actually restores it fourfold just to be fair.  In this reading, he is not the repentant sinner coming home, he is not the mob boss or imperial collaborator or scheming banker changing sides to do good rather than evil.  He is actually more like Oskar Schindler, who people thought was a Nazi business man, later revealed to have saved 1200 Jews from the Holocaust.  He is banker George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  He is a man reviled, who turns out to be a hidden saint. 


That would fit Luke’s Gospel, where it is the Roman centurion who has great faith, the Good Samaritan who is the true neighbor, the woman wiping Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair who understands his mission, and the Samaritan leper who has gratitude.  The saints are hidden and unexpected, because they are usually scorned and at the margins of organized religion.  Perhaps Zacchaeus is one too.


I plan to finish this sermon with examples of hidden saints, people who we write off or see as the “other” who may just be bringing the Kingdom.  Your thoughts?

Luke 17:11-19 "The Gratitude Factor"

Comedian Louis CK tells story that sums up the message of the parable of 10 lepers. He says the problems in society today are related to this:  “Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.”

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.”

And it’s fast and I’m watching you tube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane!

And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.”

Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.  Read more:


GratitudeGratitude can slip away so quickly.  Most of us don’t lose our thankfulness in 10 seconds on an airplane, but I know that my sense gratitude comes and goes.    I wonder if ingratitude is a trait from our hunter -gatherer brain, which is so busy looking for the next meal, that it forgets the blessing of the last one.  Our consumer-oriented society is busy stimulating our old hunter-gatherer brains with more and more prey to chase (with cars or jet skis) and varieties of berries to pick (for which we may need bigger kitchens and more food processing gadgets.)  So we are constantly being conditioned to be anxious about what we don’t have rather than grateful for what we do have.


 Ingratitude isn’t just about material things.  We so often take each other for granted, forgetting our teachers and mentors, the little things our spouse may do, all the people who work hard behind the scenes without credit. 


I can understand the lepers who did not return to thank Jesus for being healed.  I had life-saving surgery seven years ago when my intestine perforated.  I would have died if not for several things; Jeanne taking me to the emergency room, a skilled surgeon who had to sew me back together from the inside out, and a nurse who saved my life in the middle of the night, as my blood pressure dropped and fever rose, she put my IV bags in the freezer and ran ice water through my veins to keep me alive.  (That is why I am one cool customer!)  I remember the morning after I came home from the hospital, looking like a concentration camp survivor, but filled with gratitude to be home.  I slowly crept to the mail box, out of breath from this small exertion, and I stood at the end of the driveway thankful for the sun on my face and said to God, I’m so glad I’m alive.  May I never be lose this sense of gratitude I feel right now and take things for granted.


But I do.  I forget all the time as I worry about the future, feel under-appreciated, or grouse about politics.  I forget that every minute I’m alive is all a gift, because I used all my nine lives on five different operating tables.  I should never have any reason to complain.  If I was a surgeon I think I would go around slapping all my former patients, saying “You have a new heart, don’t eat that.  Why aren’t you doing your exercises?”  We just forget all the work and generosity of others that has made us who we are.  When I get depressed, I stop myself and remember lumbering out to the mailbox with the sun on my face. 


What I learned is that gratitude is not something we feel, it is a practice that makes life better.  As the Apostle Paul said, “In all things I give thanks.”  Not just in good times when all is going well, but especially in hard times.  One of the worst parts of my time of illness was having a colostomy bag for about nine months.  You can be grateful that I will not tell you any stories.  You can just take my word for it that it is a terrible nuisance.  Sometimes I hated that thing.  Whenever I had a bad experience with it, I would stop and say, without this I would be dead.  That is what kept me from feeling sorry for myself, (at least most of the time.)  


Now some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute pastor.  Gratitude is fine, but what about times where I’m truly suffering and miserable.  Isn’t counting my blessings just ignoring my grief and pain?  Sometimes I just want to have a good cry or unload my burdens with a friend.  Is that being ungrateful?

Of course not.  Difficult emotions are a part of life.  It is natural to feel awful, sometimes for days and weeks, when we go through loss and hardship.  You are human and you can’t go around pretending to be happy when you are not.  What I think, is that at least once a day, we need to stop and give thanks and be grateful for what we know is good, no matter how bad we are feeling at the moment.   It is not an instant cure, but it makes a difference.  Being grateful for a moment reminds us of that we have resources, there are things that are beautiful, people we love.  Remembering these things helps us re-member, to pull ourselves together.  We are more durable, we find more courage, it is easier to trust and hope, when we take some time to be grateful. 


Gratitude needs to be a part of any kind of recovery.  I saw first-hand how gratitude kept people sober.  I usually knew who was not going to make it through our transitional housing program where I worked in New York.  It was the whiners and complainers.  When things got tough and didn’t go there way, which is a part of life, they drank, or popped some pills.  And they went back to all the old people, places and things that got them in trouble.  I asked one woman how she survived so many things.  She went through the toughest therapy program, survived foot surgery without pain meds because that was her addiction, and after a year of recovery, she had to go back to serve a six month prison sentence in Arkansas for an old charge, from when her then boyfriend blew up their trailer with a failed meth lab, destroying everything she owned.  She said, “I get up every morning and think of everything I am thankful for.  I thank God I am alive and not in prison, that I have a roof over my head, that I am sober, and I have numbers in my phone that I can call if I need help.  I don’t leave my room until I have written my “gratitudes” in my journal.”


Don’t just take my word for it.  Here are three things you can do that have been tested in clinical studies to improve well-being. 

1)       Keep a “Gratitude Journal.”  Writing down 3 to 5 things every day for which you are grateful increases happiness, and even recovery from physical illness.  Don’t just think about it, write it down.  It is more real when we put it in writing.  This is like daily exercise in remembering why we are here.

2)      Thank someone else every day.  Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher who wrote The Happiness Advantage, found that people increased their happiness by writing one email every day praising and thanking someone else in their social network.  This makes sense for a simple reasons.  Sadness is isolating, because we pull in.  Thanking people re-connects us, and we are likely to be happier with renewed bonds with others.

3)      This is something Jeanne and I have done for more than 5 years.  At breakfast we tell each other one thing we appreciate about each other.  It can be a small thing like running and errand, or just for listening about how hard things were at the end of a long day.  It turns out this simple practice increases happiness in relationships.  I understand why.  I have to do something every day worth appreciating.  And I have to pay attention to Jeanne because I can’t come to breakfast and say “I got nothing today.”


I remember singing this song growing up in church, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.  Count your many blessings see what God has done.” I thought it was so dumb.  Turns out I was wrong, it is actually very wise.   Our best scientific research has finally figured out what religion has known for centuries.  It turns out we have a need to say, “Our God in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Meister Eckart, a mystical theologian in the 15th century said, “I our only prayer was to say thanks, it would be enough.”