Accepting the Unacceptable

Text: Luke 19:1-10

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Priest-in-Charge

October 30, 2016

Introduction

We will celebrate the Feast of All Saints next Sunday, but since all Saints Day is this coming Tuesday, I have decided to nominate the central character in today’s Gospel as a candidate for sainthood. Zacchaeus was a little man. He was very rich. He was a tax collector. He was a climber. He was a Jew. This is not a formula for instant social acceptability. Zacchaeus, as everybody knew, was a sinner par excellence. But the starting point of sainthood is accepting that you are a sinner. This is the heart and the glory of the good news we share as Christians.

Instinctively, we think of it applying to the unacceptable in others. “How marvelous,” I sometimes think. “Jesus has accepted that person. I’m glad I don’t have to!” Do you know anyone you feel that way about? But redemption is in the first place about accepting the unacceptable in ourselves. Only then can we put off our unacceptability on our Lord, otherwise we will likely find ourselves projecting it on others.

“You must be born again?” This is a phrase we don’t hear much about in the Episcopal Church. But at its core, what it means is that we come to acknowledge and accept what is unacceptable in ourselves. Only then can we be made whole. That is why the Bible talks about us “being saved.” It is a process. Our Lord does not offer instant salvation, though the process may start, as in the case of St. Paul, our church’s namesake, with a sudden confrontation. So, in anticipation of All Saints Day next week, let’s look at Zacchaeus as a candidate for sainthood. It so doing, I suggest, we may be seeing something in ourselves.

All the unacceptable characteristics in him can illuminate the shadow, the darker side of ourselves. In each of us there are traits, that though not sinful in themselves, none-the-less are characteristics that we wish were not there. We are tempted to repress them or project them on others. How often I find something bugs me about another individual, and then in a moment of self-illumination, discover to my horror that it is also in me! The marks of the shadow are different in each of us. But let’s try a few of Zacchaeus’s on for size and see if any of them fit.

I.

First, Zacchaeus was a little man. Don’t most of us have that small person inside of us. You know, you find yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel overcome with a deep sense of inferiority. You long to be recognized and accepted while at the time you feel you will be rejected or put down. Zacchaeus was the type of person who was always at the back of every crowd. He was jostled, swamped, and lost in the sea of faces.

He would do anything, he thinks, to get to the top. Oh, if he were only just a few inches taller he would be able to express himself with ease. But if Zacchaeus had thought beforehand that Jesus would stop the crowd and signal him out, I’m confident that he would not have had the courage to climb that tree. Zacchaeus was caught between the embarrassment of being noticed by everyone and the fear of not being noticed at all.

Secondly, Zacchaeus was rich. Indeed, he was very rich. How many of you are thinking: “Man do I wish I had that problem?” For Zacchaeus, however, it was a burden. It was not just because he had obtained his wealth by questionable means. His wealth had set him apart. He was envied, yet despised. He was feared but not respected. In short, his wealth had alienated him from his own people.

Third, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. When you were young how many of you were asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How many of you replied: “I want to work for the IRS!” A banker perhaps, a lawyer, a teacher or a doctor. But a tax collector? Who would choose such a profession if one wished to become a candidate for sainthood?

We all have our secret ambitions and fantasies as we were growing up. Maybe it was to become the CEO of General Motors or Microsoft, to be a movie star, or a famous politician. Do we secretly reset a friend who became what we failed to achieve?

Forth. Zacchaeus was a climber. This trait, of course, takes endless and subtle forms. There is the eager beaver in all of us. We hold a mass of suppressed desires. Most of them are entirely good. Like Zacchaeus we would like to see what Jesus was all about. But we dare not let on.

Finally, Zacchaeus was a Jew. You wouldn’t know it from the way he lived. But deep down inside he had a spiritual hunger. And Jesus brought it out. Zacchaeus knew he was a sinner. He felt the alienation. He knew that people did not accept him. But worst of all, deep down, he could not accept himself.

Justification by faith, the theological concept that Martin Luther made so famous means that we must come to accept the fact that God accepts us, the whole of us, just as we are. This is an extraordinary hard thing to believe. It is even harder to live with. Salvation is a much bigger word than many of us think possible. The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost. That which is oppressed. That which is suppressed. He does it by saying to us. “I must come and stay with you today.”

II.

The test of salvation is becoming free to see ourselves as we are, to see ourselves through God’s eyes. When we can see our warts as well as our gifts and know that God loves and accepts us just like that we are at a point where He can use us and we can be made whole. It is then that we can begin to understand that those unacceptable, painful parts of ourselves can be transformed into material of praise. It is the beginning of a process, the embarking on a journey to full personhood and growth into maturity.

J. B. Phillips, a Biblical scholar who translated the New Testament into English, once said: “All too often our God is too small.” By that he means we often create God in our image, rather than realizing we are created in His image. The image we get when listening to many of our TV preachers today asking Jesus to come into our hearts often has a narrowing effect. Such a Jesus is asked to cut off the shadow in our lives or to cast it out as evil.

What happens in those instances is that we end up suppressing a vital part of ourselves and we become less than human. It is only when we acknowledge and embrace the unacceptable parts of ourselves and ask the Holy Spirit to transform all of us that we will be able to others as Jesus did.

I believe that our Lord became fully human, not by having first been something else, but rather by achieving the integration of his whole being through accepting his whole self. He did not reject or suppress a part. This integration was not automatic. It was gained through constant reliance on the Holy Spirit and prayer. We see a very human Jesus when he encountered the Canaanite woman. Remember what he told her when she asked for healing for her daughter? “It is not fit to meat to the dogs.” He began with all the inbuilt racial prejudices, repressions and alienation which made up a genuine first century Palestinian Jew. The miracle was not that he did not start with these, but rather that he transcended and transformed them.

Our Lord learned by what he suffered. He emerged a bigger and better person. And it is this in this very human Jesus that we have seen the full revelation of God. To reach the God of love, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must go back to the God who is the Creator of all things. He created the impersonal as well as the personal, evil as well as the good. He created volcanoes, mosquitoes, tapeworm and cancer.

He is the God of the Hebrew Bible who said, “I form light and I create darkness, I make war and I create woe. I am the Lord who does all these things.” He is the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, the God who in His anger wanted to wipe out all of Israel for worshiping the Golden Café. God has many faces. He is both terrifying and benevolent. But ultimately He is the God of love because He embraces and accepts all.

He transforms even to the point of nails on wood. This God of Zacchaeus, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who seeks rather than rejects, saves rather than negates. He is the light who shone out of darkness in the face of Jesus Christ, which the darkness could not quench. And out of that darkness and into the shadow of our most unacceptable selves comes the word that Zacchaeus heard: “Be quick, come down, I must come and stay with you today.” And that, my friends, is where sainthood begins. Amen.