a sermon, based on Luke 19.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016
A rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus speaks of the commandments. The man cites his lifelong faithfulness. “You lack one thing”, Jesus says, telling the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man, crestfallen, cannot part with his earthly treasure. Jesus observes, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven!” The disciples, shocked, believing wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “What is impossible for mortals I possible with God.”
No, I’ve not mistaken this morning’s appointed gospel text (every preacher’s nightmare!). Rather the story of Jesus and the rich man provides context for the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Their encounter illumines the purpose of God who sees what mortals cannot see and answers the question, “Who can be saved?” whether asked by the disciples…
Or by us whenever, for whatever reasons, we cannot see our wealth of life and possibility bestowed by God, but only our lack. Whenever we look inside ourselves and see afresh what we work to hide from others, would hide from ourselves, and, though we pray: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”, wish we could hide from God. Whenever we recall the times we fell short of our best into the pit of our worst. When we were not loving and giving, but self-seeking, self-serving. When we were beset by fear that we wouldn’t, couldn’t be who God calls us to be or who we want to be. When our dreams of personal fulfillment crashed into the nightmares of our errors in judgment; the shadows of the consequences of which still haunt us. When we can’t lower the volume of that loud, long-playing psychological tape of blame and shame recorded ages ago by the criticisms of others and our self-condemnations.
Can we be saved? If the rich man and Zacchaeus are symbolic reflections of us – the rich man, in the respectability of his obedience to God’s Law, representing how we might like to appear and Zacchaeus, in his disloyalty, selling out to the Roman Empire, collecting taxes from his own people, how we’d like not to appear – then, between the two, Zacchaeus, I believe, answers our question, for his story reminds us that appearances can deceive.
The virtuous rich man wasn’t ready to relinquish his wealth, serve the poor, and follow Jesus. The duplicitous Zacchaeus desperately wanted to see Jesus, shamelessly disregarding propriety, lifting the hem of his robe to his waist, running, climbing a tree, and ignoring the crowd’s derisive pointing, laughing at “little Zacchaeus.”
Here, too, is irony. Zacchaeus looked for Jesus, who already was looking for him. Jesus, the proclaimer, the personifier of God’s unconditional kingdom-love, always is looking for anyone ready to receive him.
Yet, deeper still, appearances deceive. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is assumed to be corrupt. However, though in the English, Zacchaeus says, “Half my possessions, I will give to the poor” the Greek says, “Half my possessions I am giving to the poor.” The generosity Jesus commands, Zacchaeus already does! His liberality is no spontaneous, one-time act, but a constant commitment. Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve defrauded…”, for it’s not a given he has cheated anyone.
Yes, all is not always as it appears. We are not always as we appear to others and ourselves. However, we always are as we appear to God. Thus be assured if ever, whenever we wonder, “Can we be saved?” the answer never depends on us, but always on God, in whom all things are possible and who, in Jesus, always answers, “Yes”!
Daring to believe this, let us dare more, asking, “When can we be saved?” The answer is always “today”!
In Luke’s gospel, everything important happens today…
The angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock, proclaiming, “To you is born today in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”
Jesus inaugurated his ministry, reading Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed”, then saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The penitent thief crucified with Jesus, said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
If ever, whenever you and I look at ourselves asking, pleading, “Can I be saved?” Luke, the divine physician, through the Jesus-Zacchaeus story, prescribes an antidote to our wonderment, a remedy for our worry, answering, “Yes…today!”
Today is always the time of God’s salvation! Today is the time of our liberation from fear and all that binds us, so to liberate others who are bound! Today, like Zacchaeus, let us open our eyes to see Jesus and what he is doing around us, in us, through us. May you and I know that whenever, wherever, with whomever we follow Jesus, bear the gifts of faith and hope, love and forgiveness, bring the light of compassion to the least, last, and lost, bestow strength to the feeble and solace to the forlorn salvation comes today!
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
Illustration: Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot
 See Luke 18.18-27 (my paraphrase)
 From the Collect of Purity (my emphasis), The Book of Common Prayer, page 355.
 Luke 2.11
 Luke 4.18, 21
 Luke 23.42-43