A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 30, 2016 (Proper 26, Year C)
You can’t just invite yourself over to somebody else’s house. I tried that in kindergarten because my friend Michael had a much bigger box of Legos than we had at our house — including a bunch of those rare flat ones that you could build stuff on top of. And I was quickly chastised by my mother for being rude. Maybe I tried to pull this off in front of the grown-ups and my mother wanted to make it very clear to Michael’s mom that she was not raising an ill-mannered cretin.
But isn’t this precisely what Jesus does when he sees Zacchaeus up in that sycamore tree? “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now, Son of God, aside, you just can’t do that. Right?
I mean, that’s intrusive. And rude. And presumptuous. And speaking of intrusive and rude and presumptuous, today I’m talking about money (how’s that for a stellar stewardship segue?). And I’m not just talking about money in general. I’m talking about your money in particular and the church’s need for it. Now, the good news is that St. John’s has all the money it needs to survive and thrive and do the ministry it has been called to do in 2017. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all in your pockets. Hence the need for the annual stewardship campaign.
Now, it’s easy to take this place for granted. And it’s even easier to make assumptions. It’s easy to think, “Oh, the church doesn’t really need my money. Look at all the people here. Things must be going really well. And this building is so beautiful — that stained glass itself must be worth a mint. In fact from Main Street the church looks like an imposing stone castle — I’m sure they have all the money they need. And anyway, there are a lot of rich people around here. We’re in Hingham after all.”
Just as it’s easy to make assumptions about St. John’s, it was easy to make assumptions about Zacchaeus. Everybody hated this short, rich, tax collector. And, remember, tax collectors in ancient Palestine weren’t the IRS bureaucrats we’ve come to know and love. As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus would have contracted with Roman officials to collect all the taxes and tolls in a given area. He would have then employed others to collect these fees and, by skimming off the top, a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus could end up a very wealthy man.
To his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus was a traitor to his own people; someone who made his money as a collaborator with the despised Gentile oppressors. He may have been rich but he was reviled. But even worse, in the eyes of the religious leaders, tax collectors were viewed as ritually impure. Because his work took him into all sorts of homes and businesses, the tax collector came into contact with all the unclean elements of society. And so religious, upstanding Jews, like the Pharisees, treated tax collectors like lepers. They avoided contact with them and would certainly never eat a meal with them.
So, of all the people Jesus could single out, why mess with this social outcast? Jesus, as he always did, saw beyond the externals and the conventional wisdom and got right to the heart of things. Remember, Jesus was at the height of his popularity as he walked through the streets of Jericho. He had great crowds trailing after him, trying to touch the hem of his garment or maybe shake his hand or simply wanting to catch a quick glimpse. There’s a reason Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see him — and not just because he was short.
Think Red Sox World Series parade going down Tremont Street, the crowd five and six people deep and all those people climbing up telephone poles to get a glimpse of Big Papi. That’s the scale we’re talking. And imagine Papi looking up, pointing at you, and saying, “Hey, I’m coming over to your house for dinner tonight!” That wouldn’t be intrusive; that would be a huge honor. Imagine the pictures you could post on Facebook!
So it wasn’t so much bad manners as a special invitation to spend time with a superstar. But, to take this silly analogy further, imagine if Papi pointed at someone who was a despised Yankee fan. The only one in your neighborhood. An arrogant, brash New Yorker transplanted into Red Sox Nation. That would just make you cringe, wouldn’t it?
That was basically Zacchaeus’ standing in the community. And this is the one Jesus picked out of the crowd to honor? What kind of lousy judgment is that! But again, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus someone yearning to change; someone seeking transformation through relationship with the divine; someone hungering for justice and truth.
And the appearance of a flush church without any financial need is deceiving as well. Once you look a bit closer you realize that the annual budget is tight; that costs continue to rise; that we have a $7,000 budget deficit this year; that we don’t have some massive endowment funding our ministry; that we rely on your generosity to do the work we have been given to do in this community and in the wider world; that your financial commitment to St John’s matters; that we, quite literally, couldn’t do this without you. And, frankly, I prefer it that way. Because this is your church, not someone else’s. The worship and ministry that takes place here happens because of you, not someone else. This place survives and thrives only because of your generosity.
Like Zacchaeus, one of my jobs around here is to climb up into the trees and take in the view. To take stock of what’s going on and report back to all of you what I perceive. And it’s a stunning vista. I see Jesus himself working through a thriving, growing, energetic parish with a talented staff and committed volunteers. It’s an exciting time to be at St. John’s. But membership means commitment and we all have a spiritual need to give generously of ourselves in all that we do. That means, among other things, financial generosity, so that we can share this gospel message of love with one another and with those who have not yet learned just how much God loves them. This is important work that you are called to be a part of and to support with generous hearts.
And while the total number of pledged money is at an all-time high, we’re trying to invite more people into partnership with the parish. 198 families or individuals pledged to support St. John’s in 2016. I want us to increase this participation and our goal is 217 pledges in 2017. I think we can do this if everyone here makes a financial pledge to the parish, of whatever amount. If you’ve never pledged before or haven’t pledged in recent years, please consider it this year. Pledging is ultimately an act of faith; an act of discipleship. A way of driving a stake into the ground and saying, “I believe in this community and want to be part of it in a tangible way.” We want you and we need you to be an active member of this parish. And I for one, am exceedingly grateful that you are a part of this community.
The reality is that Jesus is always inviting himself over. Not because he’s ignorant of social convention but because he is urgently and passionately seeking to be in relationship with you. Not just a piece of you. Not just the public persona but the interior soul at the very core of your being. The relationship he so desires transcends the too-often superficial nature of human interaction. And it goes to the depths of your identity; the place where all desires are known and no secrets are hid. So come down from whatever tree you may be sitting in. And allow Jesus to be your guest.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck