“Unraveling: Glory, Hallelujah!”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Ramussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Sermon 4 in ‘Unraveled’ Summer Series
5 July, 2020
This summer, we’re engaging a theme of “Unraveling” with a series of Scripture stories, sermons, artwork, and liturgy that invite us to look at instances when life doesn’t go to plan, when things start fraying at the edges, falling apart, unraveling. There’s so much in our world at the moment that seems to be unraveling. The hope is that we might notice how – in all these examples in Scripture, which have parallels in our lives today – God uses these as opportunities to help us grow. To deepen our understanding of what it means to be truly human, and to grow in our sense of connection and commitment to one another and God.
From the very beginning, this morning’s story from the Gospel of Luke is about the sort of unraveling that can happen when we shift our point of view. Furthermore, this story reveals how sometimes, one person changing their perspective can lead to an unraveling that changes the whole blessed world.
Sometimes, changing a point of view happens by necessity—especially when you literally can’t see something that you want to see, and you decide that you’re going to exert some effort to change that. That’s what happened to the vertically-challenged Zacchaeus, who wanted to see this Jesus he’d been hearing so much about. Most people don’t carry a ladder with them, so he did the obvious thing and climbed a tree to get above the sea of heads.
In the moment, Zacchaeus may have thought that all he wanted was to catch a glimpse of this man whose power and fame preceded him (though not in the same ways that Zacchaeus’ own power and fame preceded himself). But his actions wound up revealing a deeper longing—not just to see but, as Hannah Garrity (the artist whose thoughts we heard in our Introduction) suggested, to know that he himself was seen and cherished, flawed and sinful though he was.
The unraveling may have started in Zacchaeus’ heart before anyone (including he himself) was aware of it. There was a reason he felt compelled to lay eyes on Jesus; maybe he’d already noticed his personal unhappiness. His listless, unsatisfied spirit. A longing for joy and meaningful connection with others which simply couldn’t happen given his status as a tax collector. After all, tax collectors were pretty universally despised by most people: they routinely participated in corrupt and oppressive practices, up-sizing the tax bills they delivered to fellow citizens and keeping the extra for themselves.
Who knows whether Zacchaeus, when he first started his career, understood all of the implications of what he was getting himself into? Maybe he grew up in a poor family, and his parents steered him toward accountancy because it made a good living and he knew he could be more secure there, and he got lucky because someone thought he’d be perfect in the tax collector’s office. Maybe he was a fifth-generation tax collector. Regardless of how he got there, he was part of a culture that operated by a certain set of rules and values, a system that tolerated and promoted certain behaviors, and disdained or punished others. (We all know that there are cultures that reward compassionate and ethical behaviors, and others that punish the same because they’re believed to get in the way of other overriding values, like maximizing profit. And sometimes, we can be oblivious to or in denial about the destructive features of a culture we’re a part of; it’s simply too threatening to acknowledge these things sometimes. The prospect of radical change – some might call it unraveling – from ways that are familiar and therefore feel less threatening than the alternative, can make it easier to simply avoid the truth than to confront it.)
It’s possible that Zacchaeus had recognized, at some level, that the culture and values promoted by his job and his workplace did not deliver things that felt truly satisfying to him. He had wealth and power. People deferred to him. He was well-known in his community. But joy? And a sense of meaningful connection to others? A sense that he was making a lasting difference in the world? That he was loved and respected, even cherished, for who he was? Not so much.
So. Maybe the unraveling in this story had begun in a very private and invisible way that doesn’t get reported. But it became visible immediately when Jesus looked up and saw the little man and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
We’re told that Zacchaeus did indeed hurry down, and he was happy to welcome Jesus into his home. That action led to an unraveling of his entire vocation and corrupt ways of being. He had a complete change of heart, as he converted to the Jesus Way of being, of relating to God and others. And, the changes represented by Zacchaeus’ conversion led to a positive unraveling. That unraveling made possible a reconstruction of the fabric of his society, as the transformed man did what he could, making sacrifices to repair the damage he now realized he had done, both actively and complicitly.
Another unraveling was also underway as Jesus totally flipped the script in front of the crowd. First, the traveling rabbi/teacher/faith healer took notice of Zacchaeus, when the unwritten social rule (for everyone’s sake) was to ignore him. And next, he invited himself to the tax collector’s home. All his adult life, Zacchaeus had perpetuated and profited from an economic system that had robbed from and defrauded those on the bottom in order to benefit those on the top. For the common folk, Zacchaeus was persona non grata – understandably received as a greedy, selfish, nasty person.
But it wasn’t God who despised Zacchaeus. And that’s the message that Jesus made clear that day. Zacchaeus was loathed and rejected (understandably!) by those whom he had mistreated. But God knew Zacchaeus’ gifts; Jesus saw his potential for good even as the diminutive man was perched up in that tree. And he helped the tax collector to see ways that he could enjoy a more enduring sense of blessing by relinquishing his attachment to worldly approaches to power and wellbeing; by embracing a life that celebrates servanthood and sacrifice over dominion and control over others.
As Lisle Gwynn Garrity put it, “Jesus flips the script by inviting Zacchaeus to offer him hospitality, which unravels the crowd’s expectations, since they deem Zacchaeus a sinner and an unworthy host. Jesus invites Zacchaeus into community. [He] invites Zacchaeus to belong. Zacchaeus responds with generosity, vowing to share his resources equitably. Zacchaeus shows us a holy and joyful unraveling.”
And in his unraveling is his salvation. But salvation is not just about the individual. As Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…” Fred Craddock, the esteemed preaching professor, points out, “Here in the case of Zacchaeus, his ‘being saved’ refers to a conversion, to be sure, but not in any private sense. Not only is his household involved, but also the poor who will be beneficiaries of his conversion, as well as those people whom he may have defrauded. His salvation, therefore, has personal, domestic, social, and economic dimensions. In addition, we should not forget that in other stories ‘saved’ is translated ‘made well,’ ‘healed,’ and ‘made whole.” Not just the individual, but the whole community.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus’ unpredictable act of grace and holy boldness in inviting a man of means to practice hospitality and to experience gracious mutuality, set a man free. It also liberated an entire community from its history of oppression by one who was formerly so committed to self-centered ways and practices that he’d been blind to the ways he was diminishing his own life as well as those of others.
It’s amazing what an act of courageous grace, a willingness to move against entrenched social systems or expectations can accomplish! On this Independence Day weekend, when we reflect on the impulse that our forebears had to pursue liberation from their experience of oppression, while ironically failing to notice how their own actions and the structures they themselves were building contributed to the oppression of others, the story of Zacchaeus invites us to think about how experiences of unraveling might actually be hidden opportunities to recognize and experience newfound liberty and freedom.
As our nation in 2020 wrestles with various reckonings that are shaking us to our foundations, and as we work to come to grips with who and what we are as a people in community and as children of God, may we never forget that God’s love for Zacchaeus was present even when he and others couldn’t see his own destructive ways. But it was in responding to the invitation of divine love to practice hospitality, to welcome the one who was unknown and more vulnerable than himself, that Zacchaeus discovered what he had truly been searching for. And in doing so, he ushered in salvation not only for himself but also for the world he longed to touch. Glory, hallelujah! Amen.
 Luke 19:5
 Lisle Gwynn Garrity, “Unraveled” Sermon Planning Guide, p. 6.
 Luke 19:9, emphasis mine.
 Fred B. Craddock. Luke: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990. 220.