Sitting in Trees at the Witching Hour
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at St. Paul’s Episcopal
The Scripture Texts for Proper 26 Year C are:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "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." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."
In economics they call it the triple witching hour—the time when three important economic indicators are released, and everyone holds their collective breath for a few hours to see what the market is going to do. There is always a measure of fear that pervades the air on these days—what is going to happen, and how bad might it be? Well, today the
October 31st is also Reformation Day, marking the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenburg Cathedral in 1517, triggering the largest shift in church polity in our 2000 year history. The reverberations of that event are felt even today, even in this place, and so we claim our heritage in the reforms made by the men and women who shook off their fear of reprisal to do what they knew to be right and good for the church, even if it cost them dearly.
And then it is a Sunday that falls in the midst of our stewardship season at St. Paul’s. I have yet to meet a person who does not squirm at least a little when the
And so we have a triple witching hour this day—October 31st—when fear is the common factor in all the equations. So what are we to do? Well, when in doubt, look to the gospel.
Zacchaeus, we are told, was a wee little man, but the hatred hurled at him by his people made him no small target. You may know him as a cute little man whom Jesus sought out, telling him that salvation was his and that he would be his guest for dinner this day. But this is an incredible story of gluttony, hatred, and fear. Zacchaeus, a wee little man was, to put it mildly, not a likeable man. He was a chief tax collector, a rich man who ruthlessly made his money at the expense of the poor; he was a traitor, a crook, a hated man for stealing from people and living on the largesse of the empire.
And yet something was missing for Zacchaeus—something his money could not buy, something his power could not appease. And so he goes to see this man Jesus whom people are raving about. Only he is not welcome on the road side. People know who he is, they despise him, and they refuse to step aside even a little so this diminutive man can see. So he goes and climbs a tree. Do you catch the humor hear—a rotund man climbing a tree?
But then the humor turns to crisis. Zacchaeus watches Jesus walk past the others standing on the roadside…he walks right up to the tree and says Zacchaus, you come down. What fears struck at Zacchaues’ heart at that moment. Was he being condemned by this man of God… would he be lynched…what does this holy man Jesus want with me? Leave me alone.
Only Jesus had a different plan. He looked straight into Zacchaeus’ heart and knew that he wanted out of the hell he had created for himself. He knew about the demons that roamed his world and tormented him. He knew of Zacchaeus’ desire to reform his ways. And so he says, Come down. Fear not. I bring you good news. Salvation is yours. I will come to your house and we will talk more. We will eat together which, for Jews, was the quintessential act of honor and acceptance. And Zacchaeus heart is opened, and he responds by resolving to give to others.
Bennett Sims, the late Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta and a proponent of the Servant Leadership movement we now sponsor here at St. Paul’s, once wrote: “The girding truth is that the human soul is built to give. We are fashioned in the image of the Giver of all life, and nothing proves this more dramatically and repeatedly than the glow of fulfillment that accompanies every act of generosity.”
Now having said that, I want to also say that your salvation is not dependent on how much money you give to the Church. Zacchaeus was offered salvation that day before he declared that he would give away a dime. Giving his money away was a response to his experience of meeting Jesus. God will not love you any more or any less whether you give to the church or not. So let’s throw the guilt card in the trash for this hand.
And what about fear, which is so often the prevailing motive for our behaviors? The beauty of Halloween is that we get to name our fears today. So often we are just told to suppress them, but can you see how the costumes, the blood, the haunted houses, the things that go bump in the night are all playful ways of accomplishing a very serious and necessary thing—naming the things that wrestle us to the ground and incapacitate us with dread and fear. But we do so as we also turn into the Feast of All Saints’ Day, when we are invited to take our seats at the festive celebration.
Have you ever noticed that at Holy Communion the alms plates are presented and placed on the altar—alongside the bread and wine. They are presented as gifts which are received and used for God’s glory. These offerings are part of the economy of God where there is no need to operate out of a sense of fear and scarcity. It is out of God’s abundance that we present our gifts, and it is to God that we return them with thanksgiving.
So let us celebrate this day as we hear the good news that Jesus has called us to come down from our trees of fear and isolation, and he has invited us to join him in a meal in which we are honored and accepted by the very Son of God. Salvation is ours today, and what great news that is.
Sims, Bennett J. Servanthood: Leadership for the New Millenium.