Sermon – 4th before Advent 2019

St Mary’s Nantwich

8am & 10.45am 3/11/19 – 4th before Advent

(Isaiah 1.10-18)   2 Thessalonians 1   Luke 19.1-10

Mark Hart

What’s your position in the game of life? I don’t mean life is something you win or lose at. That’s not a healthy attitude. In life, it’s the playing that matters. I mean, are you on the pitch, shaping what happens, being part of the team? Or are you on the bench, or a spectator, or not even allowed in the ground?

We can ask that question about many aspects of our lives, but it’s unlikely we’ve never been aware of any barriers to our participation in one kind of community or another.

Zacchaeus had two such problems. One was his height. He was little of stature. And we can all identify with that. However tall you are, you were once small. We started off that way. It means there are many things you can’t get to see.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but there was a crowd in front of him and above him.

I remember being in a similar position, aged 9. We were visiting Westminster Abbey and it happened to be at the end of a large memorial service. We were in the crowds outside as the dignitaries emerged, and my parents encouraged me to work my way through the legs of the people ahead. I got right to the front, clutching my Kodak Instamatic, and took some amazing close-ups of Harold Wilson, Jeremy Thorpe, Prince Charles, and a blurred Ted Heath.

Zacchaeus would never have got away with that strategy. I was seen as a cute little boy. Zacchaeus was anything but cute. He was a tax collector, and that was his other problem.

Now today tax collectors are not exactly heroes, but we trust them to do an important job. In 1st century Judaea it was quite different. Luke first introduces tax collectors when they come to John to be baptised. ‘Teacher’ they ask, ‘what shall we do?’ And the Baptist replies, ‘Collect no more money than authorised’.

Tax collectors had a reputation for extortion. And Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. In today’s terms, he was a billionaire. If he’d tried to push through, the crowd would have closed up to make a solid wall.

So Zacchaeus tries a different and riskier strategy. He climbs a sycamore tree. No doubt he hopes he won’t be noticed. And that’s quite possible because all eyes are on Jesus. Imagine now his panic when Jesus stops and looks directly up at him, and the hundreds of other eyes do the same.

Door to door, person to person, Zacchaeus is a man of power. But crowds can quickly become intimidating to the strongest authority, as we are currently seeing in Hong Kong, Santiago, Barcelona, Paris and many other places.

Here is your moment, Jesus, the crowd would think. We need to be liberated from oppressors like this. Zacchaeus is caught in plain sight and he has nowhere to go. It’s a perfect opportunity for Jesus to start a movement and command a following.

Instead, Jesus calls to Zacchaeus, ‘Hurry up! I’m hungry and I need a bed for the night. Aren’t you going to invite me to your house?’

Zacchaeus is down like a flash, happy to welcome Jesus. And the crowd, including the disciples, start to grumble. He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.

We tend to think it is a modern phenomenon that individuals can have their reputations destroyed in a moment as the media capture their prey and turn on them. But that’s human nature and it has always been. It’s just that today, not least because of social media, there are new and more efficient ways to do it.

But Jesus wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t see a ‘tax collector’. He saw a person, Zacchaeus, and he called him by name.

Siya Kolisi, who lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy yesterday, is now a national hero. The first black captain of South Africa’s rugby team, he was born the day before their parliament voted to repeal the Apartheid laws. That had been a very long struggle.

Prominent in that struggle was Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, now aged 88. He tells this story of what he calls the most defining moment of his life. ‘I was about nine years old, outside the Blind Institute in Roodepoort where my mother was a domestic worker. We were standing on the stoep when this tall white man in a black cassock, and a hat, swept by…  He doffed his hat in greeting my mother.

I was relatively stunned at the time, but only later came to realise the extent to which it had blown my mind that a white man would doff his hat to my mother. It was something I could never have imagined. The impossible was possible.’

That white man’s statue is in the centre of his birth town of Bedford, with these words of Nelson Mandela carved underneath: ‘No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston’.

Huddleston was an Anglican priest and bishop, and in showing that respect to a black woman he was doing what other white people, were not doing. He was doing what other priests and bishops were not doing. Tutu says, ‘His kindness and compassion, his servant leadership, were evidence that not all white people had horns and tails.’

Black South Africans had every reason never to trust white people. The Judeans had every reason never to trust tax collectors. Yet the long road of reconciliation becomes possible if, like Jesus, we can see with eyes free of prejudice, if we can see deeper than a person’s sins and failings. Equally, we can be reconciled if we can be seen in that way by others. Healing is possible if, together, we can make a connection at the level of that common humanity and dignity which is God’s gift to every individual.

We shouldn’t fall into today’s habit of condemning people just because they belong to a group whose beliefs or practices we despise, whether Tories or Corbynites, Remainers or Brexiteers, City Bankers or Eco-warriors.

Perhaps Zacchaeus the tax collector did originally made his money by extortion. But he isn’t painted as corrupt in this story. In fact, when he says to Jesus that he gives half his money to the poor, and repays fourfold if he has cheated anyone, he uses the present tense. Is he here changing his ways or is he already reformed?

It doesn’t seem to matter. What counts is that he is now named by Jesus as a son of Abraham. He’s called to be a player in that wider society.

And look at what that means. We may have thought it remarkable that Jesus invites Zacchaeus into conversation. But it ends up with Zacchaeus inviting Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus is the host, enabling Jesus and others to play a fuller part.

And as we gather here we rightly call it the Lord’s Table. It’s true that Christ is the host. But just as he draws hospitality out of Zacchaeus, so in this communion he gives us his own life that we may be open and welcoming to each other and to him, enabling each other to play our part, inviting new people, not just to be our guests, but to have a say in setting the table, reshaping the kind of community we are.

It’s for this reason that democracy is to be treasured. I know it’s the least worst system and it gives us a government no better than we deserve. But in a crude yet essential way it enshrines the Christian principle that everyone plays a part. When it comes to the ballot box, all are equal. And the result is implemented whether we like it or not.

So be a player, and vote. If you’re not registered, you need to do so by 26 November. If you think you may not make it to the polling station, register for a postal vote. And that’s just one important part of what Jesus calls us to.

Jesus called Zacchaeus onto the field as a player. He wants your company as well. He wants you to be inviting others into his company. Zacchaeus looked for Jesus, but discovered that Jesus was already seeking and saving him. That’s been the testimony of many since. May it be your experience today.