Short on saints?

By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Nov 07 2019

  Rev. Dr. Nancy Cocks

Sunday 3 November 2019

Text: Luke 19.1-10

 

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints,

That great cloud of witnesses who have followed Christ over many centuries,

Inspiring us with their examples of faithfulness.

Since I started my pilgrimages to Italy

I have met quite a few saints – in marble, of course –

Beautiful statuesque sculptures adorning churches and town squares everywhere.

Most of these saints are pictured as being very tall,

Noble in profile, elegant in flowing robes.

Many of them are characters from Scripture carrying a symbol of their role in ministry,

or they’re martyrs who bear something to represent their suffering

or the healing they’re said to have invoked.

Lots and lots of saints in Italy, though most of them I’d never heard of!

 

So when I read this week’s story about Zacchaeus

I had to think if I’d ever seen a statue of him.

Not in Italy, at least not in my travels so far.

Perhaps Zacchaeus is just too short to be a saint.

We imagine him scrambling up a tree so he can see Jesus.

No marble sculptures of that!

Then again, Zacchaeus didn’t heal anybody miraculously –

which is one way to claim sainthood.

And as far as we know, he didn’t die for his faith

like St Paul, St Peter or St Andrew –

so he wasn’t a martyr.

I did discover that in the Eastern Orthodox Church

he is considered the patron saint of publicans –

a publican being either a tax collector or someone who runs a pub.

Not such saintly work, I suppose.

So what is Zacchaeus doing here on All Saints Sunday?

 

Well, the more I thought about him, the more I could see his miracle.

Zacchaeus presents to us the miracle of generosity.

His story is familiar to those of us who went to Sunday School.

This short man, keen to see Jesus, climbs a sycamore tree.

Jesus spots him up there

and invites himself back to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.

Then Zacchaeus, the rotten little tax collector,

who has been cheating people to make himself rich,

has a big change of heart.

He announces that he will share half his riches with the poor

and pay back generously all those he cheated.

And so Jesus pronounces blessing on this short sport!

 

That’s the Sunday School version.

But we need to remember that in the middle of the story,

other bystanders were not pleased that Jesus would go home with Zacchaeus.

Tax collectors were considered collaborators with oppressive Roman authorities

in those days.

They bid on contracts to collect taxes for Rome

and enriched themselves by padding the amounts collected, pocketing the extra.

Nobody liked paying taxes even then

and so tax collectors had a pretty shady reputation.

So what is Jesus doing, hanging out with one?

It is confusing.

For Jesus had made it clear just a few days earlier,

that rich people would find it hard to get into the Kingdom of God,

Harder than a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle.

So Zacchaeus falls short on all accounts –

Not only is he short in stature

but he’s a collaborator with Rome and he’s made himself rich by that collaboration.

Bring on the eye of that needle!

 

So this story is jaw dropping, at least for Luke’s listeners.

Surely it reminds us that no one is beyond redemption.

After watching Zacchaeus have a change of heart,

we cannot say by definition that anyone is beyond the transforming power

of God’s grace.

By the miracle of Jesus’ friendly acceptance, Zacchaeus is transformed

and expresses his redemption in generosity which is in itself miraculous –

giving away half his possessions for the sake of the poor

and paying back those he cheated 4 times what he took.

Zacchaeus has gone from cheating sinner to generous saint

over one meal.

 

Which reminded me of a story told by Dr. Reg Bibby of University of Lethbridge.

Bibby is a sociologist who studies trends in Canadian religious life.

At a conference he told us about a conversation he had

with the owner of a restaurant.

The fellow was complaining about how hard it was to find staff

for the shift that covered lunch on Sundays.

Bibby perked up.

Had he stumbled into the one town in Canada

where young people preferred to be in church on Sundays

rather than earning some money in a part time job?

So he asked the owner, “Why is it you can’t get staff for that shift?”

The fellow shrugged.

“It’s because the lunch after church crowd are such poor tippers.”

Bibby stared at us after we laughed.

“Wouldn’t it be a better message about the Church

if Christians were known as BIG tippers?”

If we were known for our generosity?

 

I take Bibby’s point.

I wonder if Zacchaeus has not become a famous saint

because the Church is uncomfortable with his generosity?

What do his actions say about the rest of us in this era of entitlement

when we are liable to see our glass as half empty

rather than full enough that we have something to share?

 

A few years ago the PCC wanted to find out what encourages people

to become generous.

So a sample of congregations across Canada were invited

to nominate people from their midst who were recognized to be generous.

You couldn’t nominate yourself!

But in fact the researcher told me that those who were nominated were surprised.

They didn’t see anything noteworthy about themselves

yet others did.

So these generous people were interviewed about how they became so generous.

Pretty well everyone interviewed recognized that they were inspired by someone else

who had been generous to them early in their lives.

Having been on the receiving end of unexpected generosity,

they gradually adopted that same kind of generosity,

something others noticed.

 

So today I thought it would be good for us all to reflect on

the generous saints who have touched our lives.

Who, in your life, has been a Zacchaeus for you?

Whose surprising generosity was such a gift that you still remember them?

I asked myself this question

and remembered the end of my first year at Knox College.

I had to go back to U of Saskatchewan to do one more course that summer

which mean I was going to miss six weeks of working.

I was worried I couldn’t earn enough money to go back to school the next fall.

One afternoon after the end of classes,

I noticed an envelope with my name on it pinned to the bulletin board.

Inside I found two crisp $100 bills.

$200.

That was as much as I’d make in a whole month working on the mission field

back in the 1970s.

My worries were over.

But there was no note, no indication who my generous benefactor was.

I was a bit embarrassed that my worrying had cost someone else $200

so I asked my academic advisor what I should do.

How could I give it back?

First he asked me, do you need it?

Yes, I said, and explained my dilemma.

Well, keep it, use it for your studies, he suggested,

And then in the future, when you’re in a position to do so,

pass it on to someone else who needs it.

 

So my anonymous, generous saint inspired me always to be on the lookout for students

and also for others in need

who could use a bit of generosity to ease their anxiety.

What about you?

Has some generous saint helped you out in a pinch?

Look around this church and consider whose lives are marked by generosity,

not just in financial terms

but through time and energy and the consideration they share

to enrich the lives of others?

And what about you?

Do you try to pass along the generosity you once received

in gratitude to your Zacchaeus?

Have you become another generous example?

 

When I think about the times we’re living in,

It seems to me we’re running a little short on saints like Zacchaeus.

We’ve just been through such a rancorous election

when nobody had anything generous to say about anyone.

There’s a mood that Canada shouldn’t be helping developing countries

or supporting refugees anymore.

We can’t afford it.

People here feel hard done by –

even though Alberta has the highest average income in the country

and Canada is ranked the second best country in the world to live in,

behind Switzerland.

But when people feel hard done by,

they won’t be generous

because they can’t see what they have to share.

 

So let me commend Zacchaeus as our saint for today,

a man whose encounter with Jesus transformed him Into a miracle of generosity.

Oh, maybe we won’t give away half our possessions –

altho’ I’m thinking that would be a good way for me to start downsizing!

But let us give generously and fearlessly

because Jesus stands before us week by week

to remind us that giving of ourselves, however we do it,

redeems the world.

And if the world was ever in need of redemption, this would be the moment.

Wouldn’t it be good if every Church that bears Jesus’ name became known

as the home of the most generous people in town?

St Zacchaeus would be pleased.

And Jesus, too!

And maybe even Reg Bibby!

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