Sinner or Child of God? Luke 19.1-9 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Childhood 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. And as the savior came that way he looked up in the tree, And he […]
Sinner or Child of God?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
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.
And as the savior came that way he looked up in the tree,
And he said – “Zacchaeus, you come down from there”
For I’m coming to your house today,
For I’m coming to your house today.
The story is memorable, especially when put to music and when Fosse-esque choreography is added.
According to the story, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors were notorious for collecting more than was fair from the people and pocketing the difference. They were basically considered robber barons and were, therefore, called “sinners.”
However, we know that while groups are often labeled and condemned for the worst actors in the group, in every group there will be people of integrity and goodwill. Zacchaeus is labeled a sinner because other people in his profession are unscrupulous, but we don’t find Zacchaeus being unscrupulous. People judged him because of his profession; they called him a sinner…but Jesus called him a child of God.
So, this isn’t a story about a vile person who gets saved from his depravity…
This is a story about an innately good person who is willing to grow and become even better; it’s a story about someone who has been prejudged and condemned by religious fundamentalists but who hears from Jesus that he is a person of sacred value – he is God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
The first thing I want us to notice is that he’s short.
Who cares? Why is that important? Surely there were other short people in Jesus’ circle of friends and in his travels. What makes us think Jesus was super tall? Why point out Zacchaeus’ stature? I think Luke is making a point.
In the bible there is a story about Moses sending scouts into Canaan to check out what they were getting ready to encounter. The scouts came back with this report:
The land you sent us to explore is rich and wonderful; it flows with milk and honey.
But the people there are giants. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we appeared the same to them.
Moses’ scouts felt insecure, and as a result they assumed that others looked down on them as if they were insignificant.
Isn’t that Zacchaeus’ experience? Hasn’t it been ours a time or two?
Zacchaeus is called one of those sinners.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to use public restrooms.
Those sinners should be deported.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to worship freely.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
Zacchaeus has been reduced to one of those sinners. He’s been shamed, wounded, demeaned by his own religion, which, we will soon see, he actually practices pretty faithfully.
He hears that he’s a sinner all the time. He knows he isn’t highly regarded in his community. He feels small, insignificant, unworthy. His lack of height probably symbolizes the way he feels in his community. He may be 5’9” – but he feels like a wee little man in his own estimation and in the judgment of others, but Jesus reminds him that he is a child of God.
I said earlier that Zacchaeus may be a pretty faithful person. Why do I think that?
We know he’s heard of Jesus, he went to some effort to catch a peak of him.
But apparently, Jesus has heard about Zacchaeus, too. He recognizes him, and calls him by name!
How did Jesus know who Zacchaeus was unless he had heard something about him? And maybe, along with all the “sinner” talk, he’s also heard some good things about Zacchaeus.
When Jesus says, “Come down and let me hang out at your house!” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “Excuse me? Who are you to invite yourself to my house?”
No, he rushes down to entertain Jesus in his home. Jesus must have had some reason to believe Zacchaeus would be a generous person. And Zacchaeus does show hospitality to someone he just met.
Now, Jesus doesn’t preach to him. Jesus doesn’t tell him he’s a bad person. Jesus doesn’t say much of anything other than, “What’s for lunch?”
It is Zacchaeus who says to Jesus, “I am willing to give a lot of my wealth to good causes, and if I have cheated anyone I will try to repay them.” In fact, the text actually says, “I will pay them four times over!”
Zacchaeus wants to make a positive difference; and, maybe he already is doing good things.
What if in earlier versions of the story Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I will give money and repay those I’ve hurt” but instead says, “I do give money and try to repay those I may have hurt.”
If he’s the wacky tax collector who shakes people down for appearances so that the establishment won’t hassle him, but who then goes back and gives some of the money back to the people he took it from and on top of that gives a lot of money to charity, then that would explain why Jesus knew who he was. This is Zacchaeus, the one others call “sinner” who is in fact very kind and caring and generous. Of course Jesus wants to meet him, wouldn’t you?
And more than being generous, Zacchaeus is a spiritual seeker. He apparently knows his bible.
I will repay them four times over isn’t some random thing he blurts out.
Exodus 21.37 says that if someone steals a lamb and sells it, that person has to repay the person he stole the lamb from with four lambs. To make it right when you steal from someone, Exodus 21 says pay it back times 4.
Zacchaeus knows the biblical mandate, and he wants to follow it.
He knows what the bible says about treating one’s neighbor fairly and about being consistently generous. He wants to make amends if he has hurt people, and he wants to share his resources. He wants to use his privilege to help others who have not been as lucky. He doesn’t want to exploit people; he wants to make the world better.
Luke, using Zaccheus, shows us how we who are in so many ways privileged are to use our good fortune.
~ Don’t exploit people.
~ Be generous with our time, talent, and treasure.
~ If we have benefited from systems that have hurt others, admit it and start working to change those systems.
Zacchaeus went to a lot of trouble to climb higher in order to get a glimpse of holiness. What he got was an affirmation of his own innate goodness and sacred value and blessing for the love he shared.
Zacchaeus was called a sinner, but Jesus called him a brother, another child of God. That’s what Jesus calls all of us, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2016
I am a child of God,
Forever loved by God.
This fills me with joy.
Which Temple Did We Come to Today? Luke 18.9-14 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Two people went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a lay theologian who studied religion and made it a point to strictly follow religious rules and traditions is one of the two people. The other is a tax collector. The religion […]
Which Temple Did We Come to Today?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Two people went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a lay theologian who studied religion and made it a point to strictly follow religious rules and traditions is one of the two people.
The other is a tax collector.
The religion scholar wants to believe that his practice and understanding of religion makes him better than others.
That self-satisfying, self-aggrandizing, self-worship doesn’t bring the Pharisee any real joy, and his smugness about being hyper-religious isn’t making anyone else’s life better.
The theology that “saves” us and “damns” them is just a way of covering up our insecurities, worshiping our own prejudices, and avoiding areas in our life where we need to grow. The self-righteous Pharisee is following all the rules, but so what? What is he offering a hurting world?
Then there’s the tax collector. He has a legitimate job. He collects the taxes the government has imposed on the people. Taxes are necessary to provide services and infrastructure and someone has to collect them. But in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were often called “sinners”…the word sinner basically came to mean, “tax collector.”
The tax collector was allowed and even encouraged to create his own commission for collecting the taxes. He would collect the taxes you actually owed, and then he’d say you had to pay even more, and he’d pocket the difference.
And if you didn’t want to pay whatever he said you owed, he could employ some rough tactics to persuade you. The poorest peasants wound up paying almost 90% of their meager income in taxes…most of that going to the tax collector’s personal gain.
Tax collectors were getting rich by intimidating and exploiting poor people. They dehumanized and victimized the most vulnerable. And the people hated them for it.
The tax collector in Jesus’ illustration knows that people call him a sinner because of his business and its unscrupulous practices. And he’s had a moment of clarity…they may be right.
Maybe he is benefiting from an unjust system. Maybe his gain comes at the expense of already hurting people. Maybe he can’t feel good about that.
The reading today says he prayed, “Be merciful to me…” That is contrition; that is someone who wants to make right what has gone wrong.
We’d never be so loathsome as the Tax Collector. We would never benefit from the suffering of others.
We would never buy shoes or clothes or toys at cheap prices that were made by exploited workers in poor countries making less than a living wage.
We never traded with businesses that were invested in South Africa during the time of Apartheid.
We never frequent shops or restaurants that invested money in denying same-gender loving people the right to marry.
That rotten old Tax Collector – we have nothing in common with him.
But there’s a moment of healing and growth for the tax collector. He allows himself to see that he is benefitting from a system that exploits and oppresses others. But what can he do? He has a family he needs to support. He has taxes he has to pay. He isn’t paid enough to make a decent living himself, but he is allowed to shake people down so he can make enough.
He’s trapped in a job that he needs, but in order to make it lucrative for him he has to hurt others, and he’s starting to not feel great about that. So, he prays.
I worked all through college, because I needed to. I worked at a barbecue restaurant, and fast food restaurant, and an aerobics studio, at a sterno factory, at a hotel, and for a college theatre. It was all decent work and some of it I really enjoyed. But I very briefly had a job as a telemarketer.
People hate telemarketers. Guess what? Telemarketers hate being telemarketers.
Sometimes we’d do surveys or offer people free coupons, but sometimes we’d actually sell products or services. A client would hire the company and we’d do what they contracted us to do.
When we were selling, our supervisors would actually call it “scamming.” They would listen to us to make sure we were pushing hard enough and if we failed to do so, they’d instruct us on to how to be a better scammer.
One evening I made a sale that required me to persuade someone who was clearly uncomfortable making the purchase but who was too polite to just hang up in my face. I made the sale, and felt absolutely dirty about it.
The supervisor listening to the call said, “Durrell you old scammer, great job!” I went home and cried and prayed all night. I prayed for that unwilling customer. I prayed for her to be happy with the sale. I prayed for her to remember the ways she could cancel the service at any time so that she woudn’t continually be charged for something she didn’t really want. I prayed that I might prove to be a better person than I seemed to be on that phone call.
The next day, I quit that job. I needed a job, but it just couldn’t be that one anymore. I called my parents to tell them I had voluntarily joined the ranks of the unemployed. I thought they’d be disappointed, but my dad said, “Son, being able to sleep at night is worth at least as much as a paycheck.” Then he shared a story about a job he once quit because it was at odds with his ethics.
The gospel story doesn’t say the tax collector figured it all out that day, but he recognized the problem, admitted it, and invited God into it so that he could find a solution eventually. And, we’re told, he’s the one who got something powerful out of worship that day.
His prayer wasn’t, “I’m better than them.”
His prayer was, “I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake; God, please help me live like I believe that.”
Two people went to the Temple, but they had very different worship experiences. One went to look down on others. His was the Temple of self-adulation.
The other went to find peace, to grow into his potential, and to experience a love that was greater than his mistakes or pain. His was the Temple of hope and healing.
Which Temple did we come to this morning?
A self-righteous, self-satisfied disciple of a Zen master came to the master one day to tell him how he understood the teachings of the Buddha, how he had memorized many sutras, and how as of that morning’s meditation he had practically achieved enlightenment.
The great Teacher said to him, “My son, leave, and please don’t come back.”
The student was shocked and hurt. He said, “Why, Master, do you want me to leave?” The Zen master said, “Because according to you, your cup is full. How could I pour anything else into it?’
The Tax Collector today goes to the temple to get his cup filled. He’s still working out the kinks in his life, but worship is one way he can experience hope and help as he does so. And he got, in some measure, what he went to the Temple to get. We all do. And this is the good news. Amen.
I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
God, please help me live like I believe that.
Misjudging God Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Luke 18.1-7 We’ve all heard the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It’s an encouragement for us to speak up for ourselves, or to speak out for things that are important. But today, that bit of folk wisdom is actually theologized by Luke’s Jesus. A shallow reading of […]
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
We’ve all heard the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It’s an encouragement for us to speak up for ourselves, or to speak out for things that are important.
But today, that bit of folk wisdom is actually theologized by Luke’s Jesus.
A shallow reading of the text might lead us to believe that God is a little reluctant to help us but if we will just annoy God enough, if we will be a pain in God’s butt, then, God will give in and throw us a bone. But to cast God as the judge is to misjudge God!
God isn’t honored by our suggesting that God is uncaring, resistant to our needs and pain. And, that image isn’t redeemed by suggesting that God can be or must be nagged into helping us.
Also, if we aren’t careful, we might start to think that when difficulties don’t get better quickly for us, that we aren’t praying enough, or forcefully enough, or in a way that warrants God’s attention; that not only makes God seems petty, it also robs us of hope and dignity.
Our theology, that is, our thinking about what is Sacred, must be bigger than that.
Our first mistake is to equate the judge with God. The story isn’t about the judge; it’s about the widow (through whom God works).
The widow, apparently, doesn’t have a brother, a father, or a son to advocate for her. By definition we know she no longer has a husband. She is a woman in a culture where women had no status apart from a man…and she has no man in her life.
She couldn’t testify in court. Hers was not a voice that power holders wanted to hear. She wouldn’t have had a court date, or an appointment to see the judge. She lies in wait for him. She calls out to him as he is going home, or as he is going to work. She pounces on him because she would have no other way of meeting him. There were no channels for her to go through. Nevertheless, she demanded justice.
She is being harassed, threatened, someone is making her life miserable and she doesn’t have family or powerful friends who can help her. The law is her only hope but the law isn’t on her side because she is barely a person in the eyes of the law. But she speaks up anyway.
“Please help me!” she calls out every time she sees the judge in the street.
He’s so sick of her after a while, he finally says, “Fine! To get you away from me, I’ll see what I can do.”
She was a pain, not to God, but to the powers and principalities of this world!
She prayed for justice, but then she put legs on her prayers. She was a squeaky wheel, not to annoy God but to be a change agent in her world.
The judge isn’t God, but the widow is a child of God and as such, she knows that injustice isn’t God’s will, and so she won’t settle for it.
God wants to see justice done for those who long for their lot in life to improve.
God does for us what God does through us.
God’s wanting us to have our due is what inspires us to work for it, to demand it, to not give up on it.
The grace of God in this widow is what empowers her to never give up on justice, and because she didn’t give up, she finally got a breakthrough.
God wasn’t pleased with sodomy laws; it was God that nudged us to fight them. God didn’t mandate that same-gender loving people be denied the joy and protections of marriage; it was God that nudged us to work for marriage equality. God wasn’t pleased with Jim Crow, with apartheid, with the decimation of Native American cultures, with the subjugation of women, with government silence during the onslaught of AIDS…but it was God within us that said,
“Work to change these injustices. Don’t give up until your voices are heard!”
God is the love that is greater than the judge’s devotion to the status quo.
The unjust judge symbolizes injustice. The widow isn’t wearing down God; she’s tearing down tyranny, one outcry at a time.
The multiple bouts of chemo, the repeated surgeries, the long rehab time, the 70 or 80 job applications before something came along, the countless meetings you went to on the road to sobriety, the years of therapy it took to recover from childhood abuse…that’s what the story is about: God cheering us on as we refuse to give up.
As we work and wait for things to improve, God is taking every step with us and whispering to our hearts,
“Keep going. Don’t stop. I want this to work out for you even more than you do.”
God wants to see us have our breakthrough.
When times are hard, it’s easy to believe that God doesn’t care. The prophet Habakkuk prayed, “How long, Lord, must I call for help? Are you listening?”
But then Habakkuk realizes that it’s worth the wait, worth the effort. He says, “There is still a vision for the appointed time…if it delays, wait for it. It is coming. It will arrive.”
In the 86th psalm we read, “Hear me, Lord, and answer me! You are my God. Help me…Hear my prayer.”
And 119th psalm must have been written at a very bleak moment. It says, “I am laid low…My soul is weary…Strengthen me. Teach me. Direct me.”
But the psalmist also knows that praying through the hard times works. God does give us grace to get through it. God does renew our hope and keeps the dream of better days alive within us.
The 16th psalm offers these words:
“In God I take refuge. Lord, you are my portion and my cup. You will not abandon me.”
And in the 63rd psalm, the writer starts out discouraged:
“O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you. I thirst for you. I long for you.”
But then, he reclaims his optimism and his determination, defiantly declaring,
“I will praise you. You are my help.”
It is the psalmist, remember, who affirms: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning!”
A dear person, the Rev. Delores Berry recently lost her wife. She’s been on my heart a lot lately. The first sermon I ever heard Delores preach concluded with this line,
“If you feel like your prayers aren’t being heard, I’m here to tell you today, there’s a band of angels right around your heart.”
That’s the point of today’s parable. God recognized our need before we figured it out.
The strength to face it, the courage to challenge the powers that be, the compassion to stand with one another as we call out injustice or even as we face down heartache and disappointment…that strength, that courage, that compassion…that’s God.
And this is the good news.
© Durrell Watkins 2016
O God, eagerly I seek you!
I thirst for you.
I praise you.
You are my help.
Will You Return? Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Jesus continued toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem symbolizes the hope for peace. Have you ever been in a situation that wasn’t peaceful? Have you ever wondered if you were good enough, strong enough, smart enough? Have you ever felt like the sky was falling and nothing was working the way […]
Will You Return?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Jesus continued toward Jerusalem.
Jerusalem symbolizes the hope for peace. Have you ever been in a situation that wasn’t peaceful? Have you ever wondered if you were good enough, strong enough, smart enough? Have you ever felt like the sky was falling and nothing was working the way it was supposed to? When we aren’t at peace, what can we do? We can continue toward it. We say “go to peace instead of to pieces.” If you can’t be at peace, go to peace. CONTINUE onward toward the goal.
Jesus continued toward Jerusalem.
Then what happened? He reached the border between Galilee and Samaria.
Have you ever found yourself at the border between this and that? Not in Samaria, but also not in Galilee. In between. Not hopeless, but not confident. Not broken down, but not entirely strong. Not where you want to be, but not where you started either. On the way to peace, we may find ourselves between this and that. Not at our goal, but well on our way.
And at that border, that in between spot, Jesus entered a village. Where he was, even in his in between place, in his stop on the road to fulfillment, he entered into the moment fully and gave himself to the needs at hand.
That’s when he noticed 10 lepers who needed help. They were at a distance. They were told they were unclean and couldn’t be around people. They were a health hazard. They posed a danger to society. They had to keep their distance, but even at a distance, Jesus noticed them and he did what he could to make a difference in their lives.
Jesus looked at them and said, “Go and show.” Because he looked at them, he could speak to them, and because he would speak to them he could encourage them. Go to the priest and show him you’re better than others said you were.
Lepers were taught to be ashamed of themselves. They were uncomfortable in their bodies. And Jesus looked at them, encouraged them, and suggested that they had sacred value that their physical condition could not diminish. In effect Jesus says, “Believe in your light and then let it shine!”
And they took Jesus’ advice, and they began to feel better about themselves. They were healed. They stopped thinking of themselves as being untouchable, unlovable, as needing to stay at a distance. They started to realize that they were more than the circumstances of life, they were more than the judgments others had made about them, they could go out and show up and dare to believe that they mattered. That’s a powerful healing, one many of us still need.
Then one of them came back, filled with joy, affirming his breakthrough and thanking Jesus.
Where were the other 9?
The 10th one was part of a group that was, as Luke says, despised by Jesus’ community.
Have you ever been part of a despised group? Have you ever been judged, condemned, or rejected because of your race, religion, gender identity, physical ability, or sexual orientation?
Long before this man’s experience of leprosy, he knew what it was like to be rejected, condemned, kept at a distance.
Jesus didn’t condemn him for being a Samaritan, nor did Jesus reject him for his illness, so this man was doubly blessed by Jesus. Jesus just loved him, and love is a healing power.
A gay man and HIV positive? A lesbian and an alcoholic? A transgender person and you have agoraphobia? An agnostic and a cancer survivor? An undocumented resident and you battle depression? Unemployed and you suffer from paralyzing grief? A Samaritan and a leper?
What Jesus sees is a child of God, loved entirely and forever by God.
Jesus let him know that he was whole, that he had sacred value, that he was God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
That man’s life was forever changed. He had to come back. He had to say thanks.
Jesus asks, “where are the other 9?” But he doesn’t say he regrets blessing them. He wished more of them wanted to be part of sharing the life-changing gospel that encouraged them, but he did it for whoever might benefit from his compassion. He’d heal 10 even if only 1 came back to engage and invest in the work of healing others. And the one who came back was blessed even more.
Jesus said to him, “Stand up!”
The one who came back to praise and celebrate was uplifted even more. When we praise, we are raised.
Oh my friends, I so believe in this community of faith.
I so believe in this ministry. I so believe in you.
I so believe in the message and mission of Jesus to heal the broken hearted, to cast out the demons of fear and shame, to bind the wounds of oppression, and to set free those held captive to a painful past.
I so believe that all people have sacred value.
I so believe that together, as a church, we can experience outrageous joy and indomitable hope,
and I so believe that our mission is to experience and share life-giving love.
And I have seen lives changed by this message. Mine has been.
I have seen people filled with light because of your prayers, your generosity, your laughter, your tears, your courage. And yet, not all of them come back. But those who do, those who come back to give, to share, to celebrate, to praise, to rejoice…they are blessed even more. They are continually raised. I want that for everyone.
There’s a lot of talk among sociologists of religion and observers of trends about a decreased interest in regular worship in the US. Many churches are dark throughout the weak and struggle just to keep the doors open. I can’t speak to the spiritual malaise in the nation but I can promise this…we at Sunshine Cathedral will do all we can to heal, to uplift, to inspire, to encourage as many people as possible. We want them all to come back, and we will celebrate those who do. Where are the other 9? I don’t know…but to the one who comes back we say with Jesus, “Rise up. Rise into the power and joy of knowing that you are a child of God.”
We’re not where we want to be yet, but we aren’t where we were before, either. We continue to make progress, and we will continue toward our goals. And in this moment, we will enter the village of possibilities and we will see the need around us and speak to it and we will gladly receive whoever returns to be part of the mission.
We’re on our way to Jerusalem, and we’re doing some amazing work along the way.
Are you one of the ten who will return and be part of the effort?
Will you return to give thanks for your blessings and help others receive theirs? I do hope so.
We need you, and the world needs us. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2016
For my many blessings…
I give God thanks and praise.
Courageous Faith Rev. Anne Atwell
Rev. Anne Atwell
A Faith that Moves Us Rev. Walt Weiss
A Faith that Moves Us
Rev. Walt Weiss