(A sermon for Pentecost 23C, admittedly heavily borrowed from a prior year's sermon on Zacchaeus, because it was a hard week, and because Bob's is such a good story it needed telling again. 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19:1-10)
I seem to have a tendency to begin new ministries with some kind of crisis. In my first church, there was a bit of a disagreement about the way the pastor’s office had been used by church members, and the person who vocally took my side worried me almost more than the ones who did not. Bob was a short man with a hot temper, by his own admission, and in his role as Chair of the Trustees, he definitely got hot on that topic.
There was a bit of a mess to clean up after, and it worried me because Bob played a lot of roles in the life of that church. In addition to being a Trustee, he was a Deacon and a member of the Mission Committee. And every month, Bob coordinated and cooked the church’s Roast Beef Supper. A retired chef, he had the skills both to produce a wonderful meal and to organize the kitchen and the dining room. But as a person with a temper, he also rubbed people the wrong way.
Our gospel lesson this week is about another person who rubbed people wrong.Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, rich, but despised by the religiously acceptable people in his community. He works for the Romans. He takes money from his own people, money they might have used to support their families or to make offerings. Many tax collectors lined their own pockets with a percentage here and there, and whether Zacchaeus did or not, people assumed he did. Once a person betrayed the community by collaborating with the Romans, it seemed only logical that he would be a selfish thief as well.No one wanted to make room for this short, selfish thief. On the day that Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus could not push his way forward. But he wanted to see Jesus, so we remember him as that strange little man who climbed into a sycamore tree.
Being short isn’t the only way to end up on the outside.Bob was an orphan, which is the charming, old-fashioned way of saying an abandoned child. Born in 1930, he grew up in a boys’ home in Portland. I don’t know the whole story of his parents, and I’m not sure he did either. Perhaps they didn’t sign the papers that would have allowed his placement when he was still a cute little fellow. Or maybe he never WAS a cute little fellow. Certainly, he was that boy no one wanted to adopt, tried out and returned by a number of potential families.
Every Sunday the boys from the home walked together to the little church on Stevens Avenue in Portland. I can imagine Bob among them, just as reluctant to meet the eyes of the adults as he was to meet mine many years later. He believed he was unacceptable, and nothing he did really mattered.But it mattered to one person, an older woman in the church, and when Bob was about 11, she convinced her husband that they ought to adopt him.
For the first time in his life, Bob had a home. He respected Mrs. Elder, his new mother, the only mother he ever knew. He finished school and became a chef. He married and had three children. He moved away to pursue his career.Like Zacchaeus, he found a way to function in the world, but also like Zacchaeus, Bob felt excluded. As we got to know each other better, he told me pieces of his story. While raising his children, he worked many places. He worked many places because he could not accept authority in the kitchens where he cooked and fought with the boss everywhere he went. He got fired. A lot. He moved his family, over and over again.
Finally an argument with a boss nearly came to blows. And for once Bob met someone’s eye. He met his own, in the mirror, and had to be honest with himself. No matter how hard his early childhood had been, he thought, he did not want to be this angry and unsettled person, making life hard for the wife and children he truly loved. He could not salvage the job where he had gotten into the fight, so he brought his family home, to Maine. And it was then they finally managed to settle down and have some small measure of security, some sense of home. He cooked for many years in the kitchen of an elegant inn, rising to be head chef before he retired. And he came back to the church where he had learned the lessons that came back to him on the day he looked himself in the eye, in that bathroom mirror and saw a child of God.
Zacchaeus was a child of God, too, whether or not anyone else realized it.“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That’s the way our NRSV Bibles have it, but there is some dispute about the tense of the translation. Listen to the King James Version:
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
He already gave half his goods to the poor. He paid a lot more than a ten percent tithe! And if his assessment of a person’s tax was wrong, he would pay back four times the amount. This sounds like a statement of his current practices, not a promise to repent and do differently.
Maybe the problem was not with Zacchaeus, a son of Abraham, a child of God. Salvation has come to this house, says Jesus. And we may be inclined to read this as a moment when Zacchaeus changes, but hear it another way: Jesus, the Christ, has come to this house, to show that this man is part of God's beloved community. Maybe the problem was with the community.
Bob, too, was a child of God.It was never that God didn’t love Bob. Bob just couldn’t see how much until he decided to love himself and to make the most of the gifts God had given to him. He found a way to take better care of his family, and he came back to the childhood church that once upon a time showed him God’s love, and he shared his gift of cooking both at the soup kitchen and those wonderful Roast Beef Suppers.
Oh, he was still cranky! I’m sure Zacchaeus had his moments, too, times he wondered how to make his short self be seen, times he wondered if the community would really accept him fully, despite that visit from Jesus.
When Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, he knew his time was short. As he got closer and closer to Jerusalem, he knew he would face the religious authorities, the people determined to keep him on the outside. He must have wondered whether his followers would really understand the message that our standard social rules of who’s in and who’s out do not matter to God’s steadfast love for us. Jesus the Christ comes to all our houses to show us we are God’s beloved community, that no one is ever truly lost.
In the fall of 2004, Bob asked the church to find someone to “help” him with the suppers. He was having trouble breathing, and anyone could see his color was terrible. The doctors got after him because he was still smoking, despite their warnings over the years. He tried to quit, and a short hospitalization helped, but soon I saw him again in the parking lot before church, lighting up. On the day of the supper, he sat in a chair in the corner of the church kitchen and gave instructions to the people who would try to fill his place.
By November, he was much worse, and it surprised no one when he went back to the hospital with congestive heart failure. Because his wife had gone to a nursing home, church members made a particular point of visiting him, as he had faithfully gone daily to see her while working nights as a security guard to help pay for her care. “Have you seen Bob?” became a familiar refrain on Sundays at coffee hour, another event over which he had presided faithfully for years.
On the night of the November Roast Beef Supper, a longtime church member took me aside and said, “There’s going to be a lot of roast beef left over. We got double the delivery of groceries yesterday.”You see, the helpful new volunteers had followed Bob’s instructions to the letter, ordering all that was needed. And from his hospital bed, from his death bed, Bob had ordered the groceries, too. Although he knew he would not cook that meal, Bob kept faith with us and believed we would do the same. Really, his heart never failed. May ours be as faithful. Amen.