“Christian Fellowship: What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
The Holy Habit of Fellowship, Week 5
1 John 1:1-7
Luke 19:1-10

One of the earliest songs I remember learning as a little girl in church was about Zacchaeus.  Maybe some of you know it.  I can still remember all of the hand motions that go with it.  Sing it with me if you know it:

            Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.  And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree.  And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m coming to your house today.  Yes, I’m coming to your house today.”

The first line of the song says, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.”  The point of the repetition was, I think, not so much to comment on Zach’s physical stature as to reference the smallness of his character, the diminished stature of his soul and spiritual wellbeing.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax-collector for Rome in his region, and he was very rich.  Just to be clear, when Luke mentions that Zacchaeus was rich, he wasn’t implying that wealth in itself is problematic; there are plenty of wealthy people depicted throughout the scriptures who are commended for their faithfulness.  Jericho, the city Jesus and his followers were passing through, was known for its palm groves and balsam, and it was on the main road of traffic between Joppa, and Jerusalem, and the area east of the Jordan River.  It was possible to make a fortune there.  Especially if you were a tax collector.

Tax collectors, or publicans as they were generally called, were no more beloved in Jesus’ time and place than they are today in New Hampshire.  On balance, people don’t like to pay money to the government – especially when the government is an oppressive regime like the 1st-century Roman Empire.  Today, we occasionally hear about citizens getting in trouble for tax fraud.  But in Jesus’ day, the ones more often doing the swindling were the tax collectors, the publicans.

As Zacchaeus himself affirms in his promise to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded, it was common knowledge that publicans in Jesus’ day regularly cheated the people they collected from by demanding more tax than was required and keeping the extra for themselves.  Although they resented it, everyone just understood that was how it worked; it was (and remains) a given that the world isn’t fair, especially for those without powerful positions, connections, or material wealth.

But the distaste for tax collectors expressed by Luke and other biblical authors referred especially to their own Jewish peers who were working for the despised occupying Romans.  These individuals were seen as traitors to their own kinfolk who, instead of resisting or fighting their oppressors, were helping them—and enriching themselves at the expense of their fellows Jews.  They were an unfavored, ostracized group.  And chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus, who were able to farm out the dirty work to subordinate agents, reaping huge commissions off poor and rich alike without ever having to interact personally with the hoi polloi, would have been extra-especially loathed.

The fact that he was so short probably didn’t help Zacchaeus a whole lot—you can just imagine the nicknames that circulated for him.  All the money in the world can’t make you taller, or more popular if people really despise you.  Given Zach’s selfish, greedy, corrupt character and reputation, the only reason people would be drawn to him might because of their attraction to his power and wealth, and their misplaced hope that they might somehow be able to enter his orbit and themselves personally benefit by being associated with him.  Surely, Zacchaeus knew this at least as well as the individuals who tried to cozy up to him did.

I suspect that, despite his fabulous wealth, and although he had every imaginable luxury, Zacchaeus was quite a lonely man. Certainly, he was noticing something profound was missing in his life.  Something he glimpsed in Jesus and his disciples.  A deep peace and contentment.  A communion of individuals who recognized that they shared a common spirit and greater purpose, even if each possessed different gifts and passions.  Even if they all had visible flaws and shortcomings, and even if they disagreed about small and big matters from time to time.

The disciples and Jesus were simply demonstrating what occurs when a community centers itself and its identity in God’s love, when it lives and practices the holy habit of fellowship.  After all, we are created by God to exist in loving, mutually trusting and supportive community.  That’s what the Holy Habit of Koinonia Christian Fellowship is all about.

Zacchaeus didn’t know that yet.  But he realized that he wanted for himself some of whatever they had.  But try as he might, the wee little man could not get a purchase on anything more than the backs of other people’s heads.  So, he ran ahead and shimmied up a sycamore tree to get a better look as Jesus and his disciples passed by.  And that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.

Poor Zach must have been shocked and more than a little embarrassed to have been noticed: there he was, the mighty chief tax collector, perched up in a tree like a child so that he could see Jesus!  Surely there was a viral meme circulating about that one.  But Jesus just looked up across the crowd of people and called up to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down from there!  I want to stay with you today.  [And] Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed him.” (Luke 19:5-6)

What happened next?  It’s so predictable, isn’t it: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Luke 19:7)

How often is it the case in Christian community that we avoid the likes of certain people, because we find their life (or maybe just what we’ve heard about them) distasteful or disreputable?  They may not have extortion or tax fraud on their resumé of bad behaviors, but we know they’re no good.  How often do we steer clear of people in this fellowship, in our own covenant community and church family, not because they’re committed fraud or crimes against the public, but because something they’ve said has offended or hurt us – or hold a position we strongly disagree with?  It never feels good or pleasant to do it, but it’s often easier to avoid people than it is to approach them and have a potentially awkward conversation about it.  After all, if you’ve been hurt or offended by someone once (or even more than once), why would you want to create a situation that invites it to happen all over again?  Occasionally, we may even console ourselves with thoughts of moral superiority or self-righteousness—which, of course, are always self-deceiving, because none of us is without fault or moral failings.

Jean Vanier—a Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian, and the founder of an international organization called L’Arche, which serves people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them—wrote a book called Becoming Human, which we’ll be reading in our adult faith formation class during Lent.  Echoing some of what we’ve already observed about God’s design for human life to be lived in community, Vanier writes, “The first chapter was about loneliness, the emptiness we feel when we are isolated and all alone.  The basic human need is for at least one person who believes and trusts in us.  But that is never enough, it doesn’t stop there.  Each of us needs to belong, not just to one person but to a family, friends, a group, and a culture. … It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us.”[1]  A couple pages later he continues, “We human beings are all fundamentally the same.  We all belong to a common, broken humanity.  We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts.  Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”[2]

Jesus understood this, and he knew it to be true even of the high-and-mighty tax collector, the lonely little chief publican up in the sycamore tree.  We’re not given any further information about what happened that day, but I imagine Jesus didn’t avoid the subject of how Zach had hurt people.  Jesus was always quite direct and fearless with people when they came to him for healing; he knew what was standing in the way of them and their own wholeness and reconciliation to the sacred community our souls yearn for by design.

The conversion that followed Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ house must have caused quite a stir in Jericho.  A hated tax collector, a collaborator with the oppressive Romans, had become a disciple of Jesus.  Hundreds, if not thousands of conversions during Jesus’ ministry are not recorded, but that of Zacchaeus will always be remembered.  In these two, great opposites met: the chief of sinners and the Chief of Love.  And love is triumphant.  The words Luke quoted Jesus saying is the message and thrust of the entire Gospel: “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”[3]  And Zacchaeus’ experience of salvation represented a true spiritual rebirth: no longer was he “a wee little man”, but he grew in stature immediately by demonstrating evidence of his faith and repentance.  His deliberate and decisive turn from the behaviors he knew were standing in the way of a deeper communion with God, and real communion with his neighbors revealed his transformation.  Making amends as best he could for the wrongs he had committed against others, and seeking to restore justice and righteousness as one now guided by the laws of love, instead of the laws of this world, were indications of his growth.  He probably made mistakes as he worked to live in new ways (new habits take time to take shape!) . . . but the good news is that he was embracing and discovering the greater power in the new ways of Christ-like love in his life.

Jesus also understood that the universal need for understanding, for community, and for salvation was true of the people who shook their heads and presumed moral superiority over the greedy tax collector, and over Jesus for associating with “sinners.”  And that’s why he taught his disciples—including Zacchaeus, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[4]

Jesus welcomed everyone, not just the put-together, well-presented, “righteous” folk whom the world saw as “socially acceptable.”  (He knew that they’re often desperate for salvation from keeping up appearances.)  He also embraced those who were fraying at the edges, the messed-up and falling apart, those whom others pushed away, feared, and despised.  He included lepers and tax collectors, prostitutes and know-it-alls at his table and in his sacred community.  Jesus loved everyone, which is what makes him so powerful.  Compelling to the powerless, and persuasive even to some of the highly influential characters of the world.  But also, threatening to many others who become fearful when their power is not ultimate.  Love—which the apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13, which we recited at the beginning of this service—is far more commanding and resilient, more reliable and authentic than any other power this world would have us invest in.  And Christ wants us to experience the power and liberation in loving as he himself did.

What are the fears and other barriers that are holding us back, individually and collectively, from knowing our best life in Christ, and in Christian Fellowship?  What might you need to give yourself permission and time to pay attention to, so that the kind of love Jesus shared with his disciples, and Zacchaeus, and the whole broken, messed-up, hurting world, might flow in and through you, too?  I know I’ve been asking myself that question, and it’s helping me to make new—or renewed—commitments.  I’ve got a long way to go; it’s hard work to change habits.  And overcoming deeply-ingrained practices that hedge against vulnerability takes time and effort.  It takes practice—and practice involves making mistakes, which entails forgiving ourselves and others—to develop the Holy Habit of Fellowship: of holy communion, koinonia, covenant community; where trust and mutuality flourish and we honor our differences as sincerely as we honor the Spirit that binds us together as one.

But if a character like Zacchaeus can be loved and become loving, then so can you and so can I.  Because we already are beloved, and becoming more loving is our God-intended purpose.  Amen.

[1] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, New York: Paulist Press, p. 35.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Zacchaeus, and Luke 19:10.

[4] John 13:34-35.

“Christian Fellowship: What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
The Holy Habit of Fellowship, Week 5
1 John 1:1-7
Luke 19:1-10

One of the earliest songs I remember learning as a little girl in church was about Zacchaeus.  Maybe some of you know it.  I can still remember all of the hand motions that go with it.  Sing it with me if you know it:
         Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.  And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree.  And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down.  For I’m coming to your house today.  Yes, I’m coming to your house today.”

The first line of the song says, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.”  The point of the repetition was, I think, not so much to emphasize Zach’s physical stature as to reference the smallness of his character, the diminished stature of his soul and spiritual wellbeing.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax-collector for Rome in his region, and he was very rich.  And just to be clear, when Luke mentions that Zacchaeus was rich, he wasn’t implying that wealth in itself is problematic; there are plenty of wealthy people depicted throughout the scriptures who are commended for their faithfulness.  Jericho, the city Jesus and his followers were passing through, was known for its palm groves and balsam, and it was on the main road of traffic between Joppa, and Jerusalem, and the area east of the Jordan River.  It was possible to make a fortune there.  Especially if you were a tax collector.

Tax collectors, or publicans as they were generally called, were no more beloved in Jesus’ time and place than they are today in New Hampshire.  On balance, people don’t like to pay money to the government – especially when the government is an oppressive regime like the 1st-century Roman Empire.  Today, we occasionally hear about citizens getting in trouble for tax fraud.  But in Jesus’ day, the ones more often doing the swindling were the tax collectors, the publicans.

As Zacchaeus himself affirms in his promise to “repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded”, it was common knowledge that publicans in Jesus’ day regularly cheated the people they collected from by demanding more tax than was required and keeping the extra for themselves.  Although they resented it, everyone just understood that was how it worked; it was (and remains) a given that the world isn’t fair, especially for those without powerful positions, connections, or material wealth.

But the distaste for tax collectors expressed by Luke and other biblical authors referred especially to their own Jewish peers who were working for the despised occupying Romans.  These individuals were seen as traitors to their own kinfolk who, instead of resisting or fighting their oppressors, were helping them—and enriching themselves at the expense of their fellows Jews.  They were an unfavored, ostracized group.  And chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus, who were able to farm out the dirty work to subordinate agents, reaping huge commissions off poor and rich alike without ever having to interact personally with the hoi polloi, would have been extra-especially loathed.

The fact that he was so short probably didn’t help him a whole lot—you can just imagine the nicknames that circulated for him.  All the money in the world can’t make you taller, or more popular if people really despise you.  Given Zach’s greedy, corrupt character and reputation, the main reason people would be drawn to him might be their attraction to his power and wealth, and their misplaced hope that they might somehow be able to enter his orbit and themselves personally benefit by being associated with him.  Surely, Zacchaeus knew this at least as well as the individuals who tried to cozy up to him did.

I suspect that, despite his fabulous wealth, and although he had every imaginable luxury, Zacchaeus was quite a lonely man. Certainly, he was noticing something profound was missing in his life.  Something he glimpsed in Jesus and his disciples.  A deep peace and contentment.  A communion of individuals who recognized that they shared a common spirit and greater purpose, even if each possessed different gifts and passions.  Even if they all had visible flaws and shortcomings, and even if they disagreed about small and big matters from time to time.  He noticed that each one was accepted and loved, and he missed that.

The disciples and Jesus were simply demonstrating what occurs when a community centers itself and its identity in God’s love, when it lives and practices the holy habit of fellowship.  After all, we are created by God to exist in loving, mutually trusting and supportive community.  That’s what the Holy Habit of Koinonia Fellowship is all about.

Zacchaeus didn’t know that yet.  But he realized that he wanted for himself some of whatever they had.  Try as he might, though, the wee little man could not get a purchase on anything more than the backs of other people’s heads.  So, he ran ahead and shimmied up a sycamore tree to get a better look as Jesus and his disciples passed by.  And that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.

Poor Zach must have been shocked and more than a little embarrassed to have been noticed: there he was, the mighty chief tax collector, perched up in a tree like a child so that he could see Jesus!  Surely there was a viral meme circulating about that one.  Jesus felt his gaze, though, and he looked up across the crowd of people and called to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down from there!  I want to stay with you today.  [And] Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed him.” (Luke 19:5-6)

What happened next?  It’s so predictable, isn’t it: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”

How often is it the case in Christian community that we avoid the likes of certain people, because we find their life (or maybe just what we’ve heard about them) distasteful or disreputable?  They may not have extortion or tax fraud on their resumé of bad behaviors, but how often do we steer clear of people in this fellowship, in our own covenant community and church family, because they’ve offended or hurt us somehow?  It never feels good or pleasant—but it’s often easier to avoid people than it is to approach them and have a potentially awkward conversation about it.  After all, if you’ve been hurt or offended by someone once (or even more than once), why would you want to create a situation that invites it to happen all over again?  Occasionally, we may even console ourselves with thoughts of moral superiority or self-righteousness—which, of course, are always self-deceiving, because none of us is without fault or moral failings.

Jean Vanier—a Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian, and the founder of an international organization called L’Arche, which serves people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them—wrote a book called Becoming Human, which we’ll be reading in our adult faith formation class during Lent.  Echoing some of what we’ve already observed about God’s design for human life to be lived in community, Vanier writes, “The first chapter was about loneliness, the emptiness we feel when we are isolated and all alone.  The basic human need is for at least one person who believes and trusts in us.  But that is never enough, it doesn’t stop there.  Each of us needs to belong, not just to one person but to a family, friends, a group, and a culture. … It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us.”[1]  A couple pages later he continues, “We human beings are all fundamentally the same.  We all belong to a common, broken humanity.  We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts.  Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”[2]

Jesus understood this, and he knew it to be true even of the high-and-mighty tax collector, the lonely little chief publican up in the sycamore tree.  We’re not given any further information about what happened that day, but I imagine Jesus didn’t avoid the subject of how Zach had hurt people.  Jesus was always quite direct and fearless with people when they came to him for healing; he knew what was standing in the way of them and their own wholeness and reconciliation to the sacred community our souls yearn for by design.

The conversion that followed Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ house must have caused quite a stir in Jericho.  A hated tax collector, a collaborator with the oppressive Romans, had become a disciple of Jesus.  Hundreds, if not thousands of conversions during Jesus’ ministry are not recorded, but that of Zacchaeus will always be remembered.  In these two characters, there’s a meeting of opposites: the chief of sinners and the Chief of Love.  And love is triumphant.  The words Luke quoted Jesus saying encapsulates the message and thrust of the entire Gospel: “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”[3]  And Zacchaeus’ experience of salvation represented a true spiritual rebirth: no longer was he “a wee little man”, but he grew in stature immediately by demonstrating evidence of his faith and repentance.  His deliberate and decisive turn from the behaviors he knew were standing in the way of a deeper communion with God, and real communion with his neighbors revealed his transformation.  Making amends as best he could for the wrongs he had committed against others, and seeking to restore justice and righteousness as one now guided by the laws of love instead of the laws of this world, were indications of his growth.

Jesus also understood that the universal need for understanding, for community, and for salvation was true of the people who shook their heads and presumed moral superiority over the greedy tax collector, and over Jesus for associating with “sinners.”  And that’s why he taught his disciples—including Zacchaeus, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[4]

Jesus welcomed everyone, not just the put-together, well-presented, “righteous” folk whom the world saw as “socially acceptable.”  (He knew that they’re often desperate for salvation from keeping up appearances.)  He also embraced those who were fraying at the edges, the messed-up and falling apart, those whom others pushed away, feared, and despised.  He included lepers and tax collectors, prostitutes and know-it-alls at his table and in his sacred community.  Jesus loved everyone, which is what makes him so powerful.  Compelling to the powerless, and persuasive even to some of the highly influential characters of the world.  But also, threatening to many others who become fearful when their power is not ultimate.  Love—which the apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13, which we recited at the beginning of this service—is far more commanding and resilient, more reliable and authentic than any other power this world would have us invest in.  And Christ wants us to experience the power and liberation in loving as he himself did.

What are the fears and other barriers that are holding us back, individually and collectively, from knowing our best life in Christ, and in Christian Fellowship?  What might you need to give yourself permission and time to pay attention to, so that the kind of love Jesus shared with his disciples, and Zacchaeus, and the whole broken, messed-up, hurting world, might flow in and through you, too?  I know I’ve been asking myself that question, and it’s helping me to make new—or renewed—commitments.  I’ve got a long way to go; it’s hard work to change habits.  And overcoming deeply-ingrained practices that hedge against vulnerability takes time and effort.  It takes practice—and practice involves making mistakes, which entails forgiving ourselves and others—to develop the Holy Habit of Fellowship: of holy communion, koinonia, covenant community; where trust and mutuality flourish and we honor our differences as sincerely as we honor the Spirit that binds us together as one.

But if a character like Zacchaeus can be loved and become loving, then so can you and so can I.  Because we already are beloved, and becoming more loving is our God-intended purpose.  Amen.

[1] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, New York: Paulist Press, p. 35.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Zacchaeus, and Luke 19:10.

[4] John 13:34-35.

 

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC