Making Amends Luke 19:1-10 April 7, 2019 Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
I’m grateful to be back with you and grateful to David Ourisman for preaching on when the church needs to confess last week. To bow, to kneel, to have the humility to confess our mistakes, our inadequacy, our illusions, and the harm we’ve caused is a mark of a Christian.
We acknowledge we aren’t perfect We admit that our belief that we are more powerful than God has led to harm We accept that to confess is also to acknowledge our need for mercy, and in this need for mercy is a strange mixture of a terrible feeling of guilt and dread but also the solace of hope, hope that there is a way out of the morass of guilt and dread and death.
In confession, we turn toward the one who is the source of that hope, who beckons to us with compassion. And there we find forgiveness and relief and new life.
In the 12 Step Program, Steps 4 and 5 are about confession, asking us to make a searching and moral inventory of ourselves, and then admit to God, another person and ourselves the exact nature of our wrongdoings. Steps 6-10 lead from confession into repentance and restitution as we ready ourselves to have God remove the dimensions of ourselves, our personalities, our egos that contributed to the harm we have done, and then we ask God to remove these shortcomings. Finally, we are to make a list of harm we have caused and set about making it right.
This process of confession and repentance make up 7 of the 12 steps, suggesting to us that this part of the program is where detailed and clear instructions are needed, and the journey between lost and found is one that takes intention, discipline and perseverance.
Our scripture today from Luke tells the story of Zachaeus, a wealthy man who was chief tax collector, who repents and is transformed upon meeting Jesus. In the narrative, Jesus is travelling on his way to Jerusalem and goes through Jericho. Zachaeus hears Jesus is coming and desires to see him, but is prevented from doing so. The crowds are thick and Zachaeus is short. No one will let him through. And so he climbs a tree in order to see. When Jesus sees him, he commands that he come down from the tree. Jesus says to Zachaeus, “I must stay at your house today!” Zachaeus comes down from the tree and gladly welcomes Jesus into his house and is transformed by the encounter. Jesus has seen him, spoken to him, and in his acceptance of this man who the crowd called a sinner, has opened him to a new life. Zachaeus declares a repentance of giving away half of his possessions and compensating anyone whom he has cheated four fold. Jesus forgives him and offers him a blessing.
But the crowd isn’t having it. They grumble and mutter. Why did Jesus go to the home of one who was reviled among them? They’ve come to see Jesus, too, but he didn’t invite himself to their homes. They accuse Jesus and say, “He has gone to eat at the house of a sinner.” The Greek word being used here is interesting because it suggests that they believe that while Jesus goes into the house to rest, he may also be destroyed by this man. Their judgment and condemnation of Zacchaeus is clear and strong, their sense of self righteousness so caught up in illusion, that it causes them to think that Zacchaeus’ character defects could be even more powerful than Jesus himself. They think that Zacchaeus is so bad that even Jesus would be brought down by Zacchaeus instead of Zacchaeus being brought up by Jesus.
In this story, there are three primary characters: Jesus, Zacchaeus and the crowd. Typically, we focus on Jesus and Zacchaeus in this story. But today I’d like for us to focus on the role of the crowd. Zacchaeus has colluded with empire to gain power and wealth, and he has gained his wealth at the expense of others. He has done harm. And yet, there is something in him that still yearns to see Jesus. But the story tells us that he is prevented in doing so. By the crowd. Yes, he is short in stature, but it is the crowd who blocks him, won’t let him through, would prefer to keep him in the role of short and reviled tax collector. They would prefer to keep him in the box they had him in. Now think about it. This is a crowd that wants to see Jesus, too. So presumably they have heard him or heard of his message. His message of love, of forgiveness, of treating one’s neighbor like one’s self. Of reaching out to the least, the last and the lost. But they’re not interested in applying all of these new lessons to Zacchaeus.
And then, Jesus asks Zacchaeus to be with him, to have him as a guest in his home and to dine with him. But the crowd still considers him unworthy. They grumble and even scold Jesus. When Zacchaeus meets with Jesus, he is transformed, and repents. He sees why he’s hated by the crowd, how he’s harmed others and resolves to make it right. In fact, by biblical standards, he resolves to go beyond what is expected to make it right. You’d think that would change the crowd’s opinion of him. Do you think it did?
This is an important story because it reminds us that no matter what we’ve done, like Zacchaeus, we can listen to that part of ourselves that desires goodness and wants a way out of the muck of lies, and cheating and poor choices, and we can turn our lives over to God, and change. And it reminds us that God is always looking for us, ready for us to turn toward God, or in this case, to climb a tree, and be changed and be forgiven. These are important lessons.
But today, I want us to consider how we are like the crowd. You see, repentance, is more than just one person’s action. And it’s even more than just a two-way street of the person who caused harm confessing and making things right and the party who was harmed offering forgiveness. For repentance to be truly transformational, everyone must repent, everyone must change. The crowd was not willing to accept Zacchaeus’ change. Why? Zacchaeus was like an addict, addicted to money and power. In making clear that Zacchaeus was the “bad” one, the crowd gets to be the “good” one. And then they become attached to that role, so much so that even when Zacchaeus’ change and restitution is a good thing, the crowd would prefer to continue in their self-righteousness rather than be changed along with Zacchaeus.
In the 12 step program, Al-Anon was created, in part, to help “the good one” in relationship to an addict to also change, and to be able to support the change in another. Let me be clear, I do not believe anyone is “the good one” or “the bad one.” The mark of an unhealthy system is when people become calcified in a particular role—the bad one, the good one, the one who makes peace, the funny one, the sick one. None of us are any one thing. We are all sometimes virtuous, and sometimes we make poor choices, sometimes we create conflict and sometimes we can bring peace, sometimes we are funny and sometimes we are sick. The mark of a healthy system is when we can live in and be seen in the complex dimensions of all of who we are.
My sister and I grew up as pastor’s kids. There are stereotypes of pastor’s kids—that they will either be angels or devils, and I think this was true more so 40 years ago than it is now. Though we were both complex individuals who made both good choices and poor choices, what seemed to be apparent was that my sister made more poor choices than I did. And while some of those poor choices directly affected me and others in a negative way, I also benefited from the designation as “the good one.” There was plenty of incentive for me to keep the situation exactly like it was. But the roles and the labels ultimately trapped both of us.
Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh talks often about the principles of non-duality and inter-being. There is no good or bad, he says, but rather, this is like this, because that is like that. We are all connected. For this to change, that must change. This is like this, because that is like that.
Just as in addiction, everyone in the system is harmed, in repentance, everyone in the system must change and live in a new reality.
How do we prevent others from changing? What secondary gain is in another’s addiction for us? And how does this calcification in a role and in a relationship make us lost? In spite of a record of many good choices and righteousness, can we admit that we, too, are lost? The scripture for today ends with the words, “For the son of man came to seek and save the lost.” If we don’t know we are lost, if we can’t admit we are lost, we cannot be found. The Son of Man cannot seek and save us.
We are all lost. We are all in need of healing and being restored to wholeness. When we say “thy kingdom or thy kin-dom come” what we mean and what we imagine is a time and a place where we are freed from needing to be the good one or the bad one, the addict or the enabler, the tax collector or the crowd. Heaven on earth comes when we are freed to live and love. In that place, we have only one identity and that is beloved child of God. May we bring the kin-dom of God into being, and may we live like its heaven on earth. Amen.