NRSV HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous–
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2 I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
NRSV LUKE 19:1-10
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
As I get older, this day becomes more and more important to me. All Saints Sunday, the Sunday after the traditional All Saints Day, November 1st. A day that has given up its popularity to the day before it, All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Everybody knows about Halloween. Last Thursday – even with all of the rain – we had hundreds of kids (and adults) made up and dressed up, marching around the center of town. Traffic was blocked off so they could all walk from store to store, showing off their outfits, getting candy, celebrating The Day of scaring and being scared. The next day, All Saints Day, everybody just yawned.
But not for those of us who remember. Those of us who have been around long enough for our relational memory bank to be filled to overflowing, not with candy and treats, but with the love shared and shown by the saints of our lives. Those who have gone before us – for good and for ill. Saints, whether we recognized them as such or not, who taught us something special. Maybe what to be. Maybe what not to be. Maybe not to take ourselves too seriously. Maybe to always remember that, no matter how steadfast we may feel about something, there is always at least a one per cent chance that we might be wrong.
For this morning’s sermon I know we could have taken the more popular route to the story of Zacchaeus, and the song most of us sang in Sunday School – “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he …” We will get to Zacchaeus and his sycamore tree in Jericho eventually. But at the risk of being treated with the scorn of a chief tax collector, I wanted us to first look at Habakkuk.
Yes, one of those Minor Prophets; one of those people who wrote something we know is Scripture, though perhaps few of us know why. Even biblical scholars are not completely sure about this guy, what his historical time frame was, or even if someone named Habakkuk wrote the whole thing. But that’s for scholars. For us this morning we might feel something other than intellectual curiosity as we read these opening words of this minor prophet. And that would be not such a minor thing at all. It is a sense of connection. We are linked with this Habakkuk and his sense of dread at the oncoming Babylonians that would result in the first exile in 597 BCE.
For us these words of antiquity stir within us feelings that are strikingly contemporary. How long, O Lord? How long indeed. How long will we cry out and you will not listen? How long will you make us see wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are ever before us. From fires in California to the fires of war on our fellow Christians, the Kurds in northern Syria. Strife and contention arise, and cable TV networks are ever ready to present their own take on it, which we view from our own previously held political positions. The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. Doesn’t matter if you are red or blue, Democrat or Republican, you know the truth of that. Either people are out to get the president, or he is a liar who shouldn’t have been in the White House to begin with. Strife and contention are all around us. You don’t have to give me an “amen” for that. We all know it’s true.
But let’s not keep going there, especially on this Sunday. For All Saints, the words of the second chapter kept gnawing at me; the words that the prophet will stand at his post, and wait – and wait – and wait – for the vision God will give him. And it will not just be for the prophet; he is told by God to write the vision in words so big and clear that a runner, anyone passing by, will be able to read it.
And those words are: The spirit of the proud is not right with them; take that, you marauding Babylonians. Take that you who are a little too sure that your way is the only way. But the words of Habakkuk go on – “…the righteous live by their faith.”
We might hear those words and think of what we did last week – celebrating Reformation Sunday, and Martin Luther’s revelation through Romans by way of Habakkuk, that we are justified not by anything we have done but only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Grace alone, faith alone.
But these words are important for this day, too. They invite us to think about those in our lives who would never have claimed such a title but who lived into their saintliness. Those who showed us what the love of Jesus Christ looked like. For just a little while, I would like for you to think of those people who enfleshed these words for you – those saints of your life, those people whose righteousness was not broadcast or on display, but was plainly visible by all who knew them, who exhibited their faith by how they lived. For me, it was Mother and Father, aunts and uncles; my Sunday school teacher when I was in grade school; teachers in seminary; colleagues in four pastorates. Who were the righteous who lived by their faith for you?
I think that the people you are thinking about right now were the kind of people that others also might have considered as saints; people who lived out their calling to follow Jesus as naturally as breathing. Those who showed by their love, their patience, their mercy, their passion for all people to be treated fairly and lovingly what being a saint, a set apart one, looks like. But when we look at this popular story in Luke’s Gospel, we get a different take. This is not just some nice guy; this is a chief tax collector, and we remember from last week’s parable that tax collectors were especially onerous in Jesus’ time. It’s important not to put the halo on Zacchaeus too soon, lest we miss the special appeal of this story. In a recent reflection on this text, Debi Thomas quoted C.S. Lewis:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked with a mere mortal.”
Zacchaeus is no mere mortal, but he is a chief tax collector. The fact that Jesus reaches out to him is met with no small amount of resistance. And yet Zacchaeus remains a saint of the church. What does this “wee little man” who inspires so much grumbling and name calling teach us about living into our own saintliness on this All Saints Sunday?
First of all, he wants to see Jesus. Specifically, Luke tells us that “He was trying to see who Jesus was ..,” but we know who Jesus was, and is. The question remains – do we want to see Jesus? Do we really want to see Jesus? Or do we come here out of habit, out of a desire to do the same thing we have done for so many years? Are we just here to go through the motions, hoping it doesn’t last too long so we can get to Wendy’s or Applebee’s ahead of the Baptists or the Methodists?
With Zacchaeus, there is a desire to see Jesus. Do we have that same desire? Are we willing to open ourselves up to Jesus and to be confronted with the living Christ in all of the ways he gives new life? We may know, we may have experienced before, that when Jesus is made known to someone they are never the same again. When we sit down and eat with Jesus at the meal he invites us to, we can be nourished to sense and feel his love in others. Or it can be a waste of time. It all depends on how much we really want to see Jesus.
Secondly, there is that tree climbing business. I have never been there but I know enough about Middle Eastern culture to know that older men there do not go around climbing trees any more than do older men in the United States. Probably even less so. To do that is to make a spectacle of themselves. But this Zacchaeus goes climbing up a tree because he is short in stature. Could he not also be just a wee bit desperate? Desperate to see this man, this healer of whom he had heard so much about? Could he not have had such a strong desire to see this Jesus, hoping beyond hope that he would heal him, too; heal him of something beyond blindness and deafness, heal him of the ache he felt within that drove him away from his own, drove him to be so desperate that he would throw caution and community approbation to the wind and climb a tree?
When was the last time you went out on a limb for Jesus? When you took a chance, when you extended yourself, when you put yourself on the line so that Jesus’ way of love and peace and mercy was extended, not just to yourself but to someone else; maybe even someone you didn’t want to extend yourself to?
Saints are those who put everything else aside for the purpose of seeing Jesus, of following Jesus, of being Jesus’ love in their families, in their neighborhoods, in the world. They take a chance for Jesus. They take a chance on seeing Jesus. Not just on the street, but in everyone they meet.
Having gone out on a limb for Jesus, they respond with joy and intention. They don’t just receive Jesus with a ‘ho-hum,’ ‘what else is new’ attitude. They receive Jesus with a refreshed attitude, with a new joy. Jesus brings that to us as we live into our saintliness. A new reason to be alive. A new reason to grow. A new reason to laugh.
We might wonder about that. It sounds like Jesus is being kind of nervy for inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Actually in that culture to let someone show hospitality toward you was a great compliment. It showed that you were someone special. That you were someone who counted big time. That you really were a child of Abraham, a part of the community of faith, no matter what other people might think.
My love for this day grows every year because the list of saints in my life – and yours, too – grows a little longer every year. But this is a day to remember them; to remember them with joy and thanksgiving that once upon a time they graced our lives. And they still do. That’s why we lift up their names when we celebrate the high point of Presbyterian worship, the Prayer of Thanksgiving during the Sacrament of Communion. Here we eat and drink, as Jesus and Zacchaeus once did. And in that act, we remember them and all those others who lived out their saintliness. For in the act of doing that we are invited to do the same. Amen.