The Angelus

Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost October 30, 2016 by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

Luke 19:1-10

Saving the Lost

We have before us an unusual story.  Zacchaeus is both a chief tax collector, and rich, and Jesus doesn’t condemn him for either.  Zacchaeus is curious about Jesus and wants to see him.  We learn that he is short so to see Jesus he climbs a sycamore tree.  This too is unusual.  We believe that adult male dignity was important in the Gospel era, and Zacchaeus does an undignified act: he climbs a tree.

We know much about tax collectors and the wealthy from the Gospels.  While Jesus compares a tax collector favorably to a Pharisee when the Pharisee is prideful that he is not a sinner like the tax collector,[1] it is nevertheless true that tax collectors, for reasons that won’t delay us today, are universally sinners and outside the community.  Likewise just before this passage Jesus has told the Rich Young Man[2] that he must sell all that he has if he hopes to be part of the kingdom.  Luke’s audience would expect Zacchaeus to be condemned by Jesus.

We know that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, for the last time, to experience first Palm Sunday and then the Passion.  However, he sees Zacchaeus and stops his journey to have a meal with him.  Why?  The last verse of the Gospel reading discloses his reason.  He has come to seek out and save the lost.  This is the central purpose of the Gospel.  Christianity does not, according to scripture, exist to give us a good set of morals.  It does not exist to give us fire insurance—that is protection from damnation.  It does not exist to make us individually pious.  It does not exist to make this a Christian nation and has no interest in whether we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  These are at best penultimate aspects of leading a faithful life.  The true purpose of our Christian life, and especially our faith as Anglo-Catholic Christians who historically have focused on the incarnational aspect of our faith, is on saving the lost.

I am preaching this morning in part to urge you to join me in a study of Vol. 2 of Luke, otherwise known as the Acts of the Apostles, beginning next Sunday and running for all four Sundays in November and then resuming in Lent.  It is unfortunate that we didn’t use the cognates of the Greek name for the name of this book in English.  In Greek, Acts is the praxeis apostolon or The Practice of the Apostles.  In Acts we learn how the early church formed itself and discovered its mission.  As Luke tells us in today’s Gospel, the mission is not to build churches, hire clergy or worship in the right way.  The mission is to Save the Lost.  Zacchaeus personifies one of the lost who wants to be found.  Jesus knows this, how we don’t know, and interrupts his journey to the Crucifixion to have a meal with someone everyone knew was lost, a wealthy tax collector.  The practice of Christianity is to Save the Lost.

Our mission is rarely directed at wealthy, powerful people, and I will not be suggesting this morning that we redirect our mission.  In visiting Zacchaeus, Jesus is reminding us that none of us, regardless of our sinfulness, is automatically beyond salvation.  In our culture we associate wealth, mostly, with success, and we court the wealthy so they will share some of it with us.  So the point I want to make is that no one is beyond salvation, not that we need to begin an outreach to the wealthy.

I talk about St. Mary’s frequently since I live less than ½ mile from the Episcopal Church in Westport, and people wonder why we come into Times’ Square.  Most assume I come here because I enjoy the Mass, and I do, and the opportunity to swing a really big thurible, and I enjoy it, and the chance to chant the liturgy, and however inadequately I do it, I enjoy it.  However, we attend regularly for none of those reasons.  We are faithful in our worship here because of the diversity we find here.  We live out the life of Saving the Lost here.  My faith is strengthened by the diversity here. 

This fall I am doing a lot of teaching.  In September and October I spent Wednesdays at St. Mark’s, New Canaan.  St. Mark’s is a huge wealthy congregation in one of the suburbs with a higher per capita income than Westport.  I spoke to the bible study there about St. Mary’s.  One of the women in attendance was curious enough to come here on a weeknight for Evening Prayer.  She shared with me how wonderful it was to be at Evening Prayer with a nun across the chancel from her and a shoe shine man in the pew behind her.  She knew that’s what he did because he had his box with him.  He knew the entire liturgy and was obviously there intentionally and fully participating.  Then to top it off she noticed the homeless people in the pews and was impressed that no one was trying to remove them from the church while the liturgy went on.  She clearly recognized that St. Mary’s was taking its mission seriously to Save the Lost by welcoming those with very real and practical needs.  We aren’t simply preaching about it, we’re living it.

I have been so moved by this part of our life together, and by the stewardship mailing, that Barbara and I have increased our pledge by more than 10% this year.  There is joy in Saving the Lost.

Zacchaeus was simply curious.  He wanted to see Jesus.  When Jesus diverted himself to his house, Zacchaeus truly saw who Jesus was.  The worthy didn’t appreciate this, since Jesus was going to the house of a sinner.  Zacchaeus makes no promises to stop being a tax collector.  He does state what he does to accomplish his job ethically, but he doesn’t give it up.  In the eyes of the crowd, he continues as a public sinner and Jesus is diminished because he isn’t recognizing that he has spent his good reputation on someone unworthy of it.  We are called to do the same.  We are called to see people as they really are and not as our culture tells us they are.  Jesus knows no hopeless human being.  We are all called on the one hand to be Zacchaeus and be willing to lose our dignity and on the other hand to be Jesus and recognize the desire in the other no matter how the other looks or is regarded.

We are about to end a difficult time in our national life together.  This Gospel reminds us that as Christians we are called to care for those whom Jesus cared for.  In other words the purpose of Incarnational Anglo-Catholicism is not to regard anyone with fear but to see everyone, regardless of their status in our society as someone else for whom Christ died


[1] Luke 18:9-14

[2] Luke 18