October 30: The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

The sermon on October 30, 2022 was offered by The Rev. Elaine Breckenridge. A priest of thirty-five years, she is now retired and lives on Camano Island. Her manuscript is below and was based on the the Gospel for the day, Luke 19:1-10.

A few years ago, I took a pilgrimage to Ireland. One day we spent the morning walking in The Burren, a wild landscape located in County Clare. It was beautiful and also a very wet and windy day. Afterwards, we piled into our small tour bus and headed to Galway for lunch. As I was getting off the bus, I caught a glimpse of myself in the driver’s rear-view mirror. My appearance was a disaster! Approaching the restaurant, I became more and more anxious about my appearance. And then, turning the corner, right in front of the restaurant was a signboard which read, “You look fine.” Immediately I relaxed. The sign was a warm gesture which said to me, “You are welcome just the way you are. Come on in.” It was a moment of hospitality that I will always remember. 

So, what does my experience have to do with this morning’s Gospel reading? As we shall see, hospitality was an important ministry of Jesus.             

This morning’s Gospel is a favorite. Children also love the story. I remember one Sunday in Tucson where I was serving, children climbed into small trees in front of the church. As people came outside, after service, we heard them saying “I am Zacchaeus.” Other children were at the bottom of each tree, saying “I am Jesus. Come down. It’s time for coffee hour.” 

What a lovely invitation. Another example of hospitality.   

And so, let’s look at the Gospel again. Zacchaeus. Yes, he is a tax collector, not just any tax collector but the chief collector in charge. Being at the top of his field, it is likely that Zacchaeus was rich having made his fortune by taking advantage of others. But perhaps having money was not enough for Zacchaeus, because he was curious enough to leave his work just to see Jesus. Climbing that tree, he could observe both Jesus and the crowd from a safe distance. 

Our reading says that Zacchaeus climbed that tree because he was short. But perhaps he was uncommitted. He reminds me of shopping in a nice store where there are actually sales persons who will approach you and say, “Can I help you?” And if you are uncommitted, you simply say, “No thanks, I am just looking.” Zacchaeus was just looking. He was curious enough to stand on the sidelines rather than actually participating, until Jesus calls out to him.   “Zacchaeus, Hurry and come down! I am going to stay at your house!

Zacchaeus had a choice to make at that very moment. He looked down at Jesus and then made the decision to come out of the tree and stand in front of Jesus. Both men made eye contact. 

And then something happened. In a few short verses we are told that Zacchaeus had a conversion experience. Zacchaeus became a changed man. He moved from “just looking” to seeing–Jesus, himself, other people. He saw how he had hurt people and overlooked others. He vowed to repay those whom he had cheated and to give to the poor. He moved from being a taker to being a giver. And a big giver at that. Now that’s a conversion! It’s almost hard to believe.  

I had a dream about this Bible story once. In my dream I was straining so hard to find Jesus, and suddenly Jesus said softly, “Elaine, I am right here.” And then I saw the face of Christ, and it was as radiant, as bright as a full harvest moon suddenly rising over the horizon, shattering the darkness with light and beauty. I saw the face of Jesus but he also saw me and looked on me with eyes of love. Now if Zacchaeus had an experience that was anything like my dream, I am not surprised that when Jesus, said to him, “Hurry down, for I must come to your house today,” that Zacchaeus did just that. 

The call of Jesus was and is irresistible. He had the gift of making people feel welcome in his presence. Jesus had the gift of hospitality and the ability to be a wonderful guest. 

Think of how generous a guest, Jesus was. No home was too high or too low for him to enter. He dined with tax collectors and sinners and with scribes and pharisees. He drank water from the hand of a Samaritan woman, and as a guest allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. He dined at the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany and helped Martha reframe what it meant to be a hostess. He told many parables about the importance of being an appropriate guest. Jesus showed us that hospitality is not simply the business of a restaurant or inviting people to coffee hour. Yes, it involves inviting others and serving them. But ultimately, the hospitality of God and Christ is a relationship.

Zacchaeus had the experience of being welcomed, unconditionally, into the presence of Jesus. Jesus looked on Zacchaeus with the eyes of loving kindness. He saw him not as a tax collector but as a child of God. For the first time in probably a long time, Zacchaeus was welcomed into the presence of a fellow Jew. That’s why everything changed for Zacchaeus. The hospitality of Jesus was life changing.  

Maybe the reason why Zacchaeus ended up in the tree was not because he was short or because he wanted to keep a safe distance from Jesus, perhaps he was afraid of mingling in the crowd. 

His own people looked at him with scorn and intense dislike. And the fact that Jesus sought out a relationship with the chief tax collector did not impress the on-lookers watching this exchange happen. They sneered and grumbled. How could Jesus go to the house of a sinner?       

As in many Gospel accounts, the healing or conversion of an individual is not the end of the story. Jesus came to transform communities as well as individuals. If Jesus was going to the house of a sinner for a meal, in effect Jesus was proclaiming the message, this is a safe house. All may enter this sinner’s house without fear of contamination. As Jesus said in today’s reading, “Today salvation has come to this house because he too is a son of Abraham.”             

Jesus practiced a special kind of hospitality–an open table fellowship with all kinds of diverse people. When this Gospel story was read in the early church there may have been a few people who squirmed in their seats. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (who also had trouble mixing) were being invited to come together to share the Eucharist and to practice hospitality with those outside their own fellowship, the fellowship of Jesus.

I wonder, how can we exercise hospitality in the world as individuals? We may not be able to look on others with the same unconditional love that Jesus and God have for us, but we can practice hospitality where ever we are. This is even more important now as we see so much polarization in our country and in our world. What can we do in our own spheres of influence to practice the hospitality of Jesus?       

Hospitality, as I have said, is to welcome others into our presence so that they feel accepted and comfortable—even when our opinions may differ. One of the many consequences of the pandemic is that some of us lost the art of practicing hospitality in public spaces. Social distancing was and is an important medical practice but it seems to have changed both our manners and our generosity when it comes to dealing with strangers and people who may be different from us. Maybe today’s Gospel is an invitation to consider changing that. 

If like Zacchaeus we have been touched by the love of Christ, can we become more generous people in our dealings with others? During the month of November, perhaps a spiritual practice grounded in the theology of thanksgiving might be to practice being friendly. 

I noticed recently that when I am in the grocery store; I often shop as if I am in a hurry. I make a beeline to my pre-selected aisle. I have ignored some of the checkers because they do not seem friendly. And then I remembered what Henry Nouwen once wrote about hospitality. 

Hospitality” he said “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”

Lately I have tried just being friendly and moving more slowly. I spoke to a sales clerk who I thought was unfriendly and she is not. I just had to make the first move. 

I think about what it means to be a guest of the world and how, like Jesus, I want to be a good guest. What if one, or some, or all of the strangers I meet is really Christ in disguise? One of my favorite quotes come from an author named Paula D’arcy who said, “God comes to us disguised as our lives.” I believe that. 

Sometimes we may find ourselves up a tree and looking down on others. Maybe this Gospel is an invitation “to come down” and begin making more eye contact with others. There are gifts in other people waiting to be discovered. Be open to God’s surprising invitations. We can grow spiritually by offering our gracious selves to all whom we meet. I cannot think of a better way to prepare for the season of Advent. 

Let us pray. Let us pray to be on the lookout for the joy of the blessing of God who often comes to us a stranger. Amen.

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