Sunday, November 3, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10
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The word “saints” can be a difficult word for us to grasp. Colloquially, we often use the word “saint” to mean a “really, really good person,” as in “My grandmother was an absolute saint.” By it, we usually mean someone whose moral character is without defect, someone who is a high example of how to live. Most of us would say, “I’m no saint,” and by that, we would partly mean to deflect unwanted praise, but also, we know what we can sometimes be like.
The New Testament meaning of the word “saint” is a bit different, though, and means, quite simply, those who are part of the covenant community, those who are part of the church. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for example, he addresses the letter to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” We should not imagine that he is addressing the letter to some select few people in the Philippian congregation who are the “good people,” as though there were some secret list in someone’s office of who the good people actually were. He was addressing it to all those who were part of the church.
One of the great insights of the Protestant Reformation, especially from Martin Luther, is that we are, each of us, simultaneously saint and sinner. When we become part of the faith community, we are joining the communion of the saints, but we should not imagine that when we do so that we are magically expunged of the sin that is in us. We church people can do some of the meanest things, and the history of the Christian church is littered with sin. But by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we are also justified and made to be part of the saints. We do not earn our sainthood; it is given to us in Jesus Christ.
On All Saints’ Sunday, we will remember by name those of our congregation who have died during the past year – we will read their names during the communion prayer and we will sound the chime in their memory; we will also sound a chime in memory of others, known to each of us beyond this congregation, who have died. We remember them, we draw close to them in our memories, and we give thanks for their lives.
We may understand the saints as those who are part of the covenant community.
Using our two texts this morning, from the great Psalm 119 and the story of Zacchaeus, I want to focus that a little bit more, and suggest that we may understand the saints to be those who love the promises of God, and who reorganize their lives accordingly. The saints are those who love the promises of God, and who reorganize their lives accordingly.
Psalm 119 is a massive, 176-verse long, meditation on the beauty, the importance, and the life-giving power of God’s Torah, God’s Word, God’s Law, God’s Instruction. Whoever wrote Psalm 119 was passionately devoted to the Torah, having experienced the Torah as a source of guidance, identity, and liberation, because in the Torah, in the Law, the covenant community encounters the voice and the word of God. In verse 140, the psalmist writes, “Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it.”
According to the psalm, the promises of God have been found to be reliable in the past, and so the psalmist trusts them to be reliable in the present. The saints are those who love the promises of God, because they are what guide us and sustain us when times get tough.
The gospel story of Zacchaeus takes all of this material about the saints, and gives it a giant, fascinating twist. It’s a fascinating twist because the saint in question here, the member of the covenant community that we are talking about, is Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus – we can tell this in the story – was despised. What we have here, then, is a saint who was hated by others in the community. That fact alone may force us to reassess what we mean by the word saint, and possibly to reexamine our limited definitions of who qualifies as a saint.
We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, who was rich. Now, as a refresher, during the New Testament period, tax collectors were Jews who cooperated with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire, to collect taxes for the empire from their fellow Jewish citizens. Once the tax collectors had collected the necessary taxes for Rome, any additional money they collected went straight into their own pockets. It was a system with great potential for corruption and cruelty and bullying. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was no small player in this system, and as a rich man, he had clearly managed to collect quite a bit for himself. From the few details we are given in the story, Zacchaeus was clearly known in the community, and he was loathed and resented by the community.
So in order to get ourselves into the story, we need to think of someone that we despise, someone who may have taken something valuable from us, in order to get a feel for the resentment that the people of the community would have felt towards Zacchaeus.
When Jesus spots Zacchaeus up in the tree, however, Jesus does not ostracize him, the way our tribal egos might prefer. Jesus moves towards him. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says, “Come on down, I must stay at your house today.”
Now we do not know how long it has been since someone has wanted to be close to Zacchaeus. It wouldn’t take much imagination to think that it has been quite a long time. In any event, this experience with Jesus becomes transformative for him. It is as though by Jesus’ move towards him, Zacchaeus suddenly remembers who he is as a child of the covenant, something in him gets unlocked, and he publicly reorganizes his life. “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone, I will pay them back fourfold.” Some of those standing nearby may well have themselves been defrauded by Zacchaeus, and they would not forget what he had said.
Jesus then goes on to comment about Zacchaeus that “he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Which is to say, Zacchaeus, too – this tax collector, this enemy of yours whom you despise – he is a part of the covenant community. Jesus says to Zacchaeus and to Zacchaeus’ resentful, defrauded neighbors, you are all family with each other. Which would not have been easy words for any of them to hear. These words would clearly require much of Zacchaeus in the days ahead, but they would also require much of the community to welcome him back in.
The promises of God are well-tried, and the servants of God, the saints of God love them, trust them, and then re-organize our lives around them. Are there promises of God that are particularly important to you? Do you find God’s promises to be reliable, or do they sometimes seem a little too uncertain? Are there words from God around which you need to reorganize your life – are there ways you need to reorganize your time? Reorganize how you handle your money? Reorganize how you are in relationships? Reorganize how you assess other people? God’s promises –of guidance, of God’s presence with you through all the twists and turns of your life, God’s promises of making things right between the poor and the rich – we are invited into these promises and to stake our lives on them. To God be all the glory. Amen.