Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zacchaeus and The Pilgrim

A sermon on Luke 19:1-10

In the summer of 1987, I taught English for five weeks in China. While there, I had the chance to visit Mount Tai which, according to tradition, is the holiest mountain in China. It is a remarkable place. There is a wide staircase carved into the rock from the base of the mountain all the way to its peak. For centuries, millennia even, pilgrims have been coming from all over China to climb those steps.

As you climb the steps, there is a growing sense of age and history. Along the way, there are places where poetry and quotations of Chinese classics have been carved into the faces of cliffs and even behind waterfalls. There is a plaque commemorating the visit of an emperor that dates back two thousand years. At the top of the mountain, there is a Buddhist monastery and shrines dedicated to various Taoist deities. It was the first time I had ever been to anything like an official pilgrimage site.

Walking up the stairs of Mount Tai, one sees trees with rocks wedged into the branches. Each rock represents a prayer brought to the mountain. Sometimes there are two, three, or four rocks of different sizes lined up like sparrows on a branch. Pilgrims wedge their prayer rocks into the branches of the trees of Mount Tai hoping that maybe here their prayers will be heard and change will happen. They are poignant reminders of human need and the universal desire for heavenly help.

Zacchaeus went on a sort of pilgrimage. He didn't travel far. He didn't climb a mountain. But he did climb a tree. He was an unlikely pilgrim. A tax collector, he was willing to sell out his own people to make a buck. He sided with the forces of occupation and oppression. Hardened and cynical, he knew the way things work. Words like goodness, love, and justice were only words. They had no currency in his line of work. You have to look out for number one. That's what Zacchaeus had done. And he had done it well, thank you very much. He was no petty tax collector. He had been employee of the month so often he was given his own franchise. If you could say "Bah! Humbug!" in Aramaic, it might have been his motto. No, Zacchaeus was not a likely pilgrim - or a likely candidate for change. Certainly, his neighbors had written him off.

Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, or the bottom of his heart, there is a nagging, a sense that all is not right. There is brokenness and guilt behind the cynical mask. Somewhere he has lost his way - if he ever had a way that was not already lost. He has grown weary of his life, but sees no way out. He is alone. He is lost.

Then, along comes this man, Jesus, a man with a reputation for changing lives, for healing, and for restoration. Can change happen here? Can this man do it? Zacchaeus is still unsure. It is as much a surprise to himself as to anyone that he finds himself perched in a sycamore tree, wedged in its branches like a prayer.  Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. He is on a pilgrimage.

But, Zacchaeus is not the only pilgrim in the story. He is not even the primary one. Jesus is also on a pilgrimage. "The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Jesus, the Word made flesh, came into this world on a pilgrimage. Like all pilgrims, Jesus came seeking something important. But, unlike other pilgrims, he came not to seek the holy out of personal sense of need, but to bring his holiness and wholeness where it was needed. Like a pilgrim visiting a series of shrines Jesus came to the sisters Mary and Martha. He came to a bent and broken old woman. He came to the blind man and the leper. He came to the Samaritan woman. He came to the children. He came to a man whose wealth and comfort made him numb to the needs of the poor. Jesus was on a pilgrimage. The destination of that pilgrimage was the broken and the lost, the possessed and the dispossessed, the outcast and the one who casts out, the oppressed and the collaborator. The son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. But before Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And now, Zacchaeus is tree'd.

To his surprise (and everyone else's dismay) he hears Jesus say, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. For I must stay at your house today." There was something in that voice, something in the eyes that made the invitation impossible to refuse. Maybe it was the shock of being loved when he had become so unlovable. Maybe it was a sense of judgement in the presence of one so good. Maybe it was the realization that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whatever it was it caused the beginning of a change. Zacchaeus was reconnected with his neighbors. He was reconnected with God. And the combination of those two connections disconnected him from his attachment to his wealth. He paid back those he had cheated at 400% interest. He gave half of the rest to the poor. Zacchaeus had been lost, but now he was found. He had been lost, but now he was saved.

Each of us has also come on a sort of pilgrimage this morning. Like Zacchaeus, we haven't come far. Like Zacchaeus, we have come to see Jesus. It is into his cross-shaped tree that we wedge our prayers. We bring our brokenness, our lost dreams, our lost innocence, our need. We bring our hopes for change, for connection, for forgiveness, for healing. Perhaps here change can happen.

But here also, the real pilgrim is still Jesus. The destination of his pilgrimage is each of us. Before we thought to seek him, he has come seeking us. He looks to each of us and says, "Hurry and come down, for I must stay with you today." The risen Lord still comes to seek out and to save the lost. To seek out and to save you and me.

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