Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday before Advent (30 October 2016) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Priest Vicar and Chaplain

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7:30am Morning Prayer
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12:30pm Eucharist
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Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday before Advent (30 October 2016) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Priest Vicar and Chaplain

The Chaplain looks at Zacchaeus - is he the model disciple?  

It amuses me that today we have a Gospel reading about a tax collector as we approach the first deadline for filing our tax returns tomorrow, a deadline which, as usual, I have spectacularly failed to meet. Time has run out for me again, and I will have to once again and hopefully more successfully than on previous attempts, tackle the on-line filing system to complete my tax return.

That sense of time running out or running away with us is highlighted at this time of year as the days shorten and we gallop towards Christmas. 

Do you, like me, feel there is never enough time, that you constantly wish you had more time but the list of things to do or that the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves to us overwhelm us with choices that paralyse us, how should we use the time that we have?, the time that we have left?

In our first reading this morning from the 2nd letter to the Thessalonians the author is at pains to get his hearers to understand that time was not running out. They had got themselves into a bit of a state about being in the end times and were either panicking, and in danger of being led astray through their fears and anxieties, or thinking that there is no point doing anything because the end was nigh.

The author aims to calm their fears and encourage them to carry on regardless, reassuring them that everything would be accomplished in God’s time. The device used to communicate this message is deliberative rhetoric and it is rather hard for us to hear, as it comes across as rather threatening, rather harsh, its just not something we are used to. But pay close attention to what is being said and we find that it is an exhortation not to be caught up in fear and panic because things seem out of control, but continuing to trust in God’s faithfulness and persevering in the way of life even when it seems pointless to do so.

The second letter to the Thessalonians has a rather unfortunate reliance on the language of punishment and reward which is typical of this form of rhetoric and I can’t help but see this as being at odds with the message of God's unconditional love and mercy, which I believe to be at the heart of the Gospel and so I have to admit that it isn’t a text that I find particularly helpful. The Pauline Epistles rely heavily on these ancient and highly stylised forms of argument, and if you don’t particularly enjoy the cut and thrust of combative debating then you, like me, might find them rather hard work.

Today's Gospel reading similarly is a text that I have often found to be problematic because it is almost universally misunderstood and badly preached! I hope you won’t find my exegesis as appalling as I have often found that of others!

Zacchaeus is almost always portrayed as a bad guy, a hated tax collector, corrupt and dishonest. A weasly cheat, who, having met Jesus, is moved to repentance.

Now, where is the story does it say that? The people did indeed have a problem with tax collectors and those who undertook that occupation could expect to be despised and treated as an outcast for supporting the work of an oppressive regime.

But nowhere does it say that Zaccheaus was corrupt, on the contrary - and this is one of the few times I have a problem with the NRSV translation of the original Greek which we use - Zacchaeus' statement should be read in the present tense, as it is in the Revised Standard Version. 

He IS giving half of his possessions to the poor and if, IF he has defrauded anyone, he repays them the required fourfold compensation. 

Here is someone who, although an outcast in terms of the Jewish community, more than observes the demands of the law in terms of charity, and restoration for wrongdoing.

The Gospel writer has Jesus zooming in on Zacchaeus, not because he needs saving, but to set him up as an example of one who is surprisingly righteous, even though everyone else sees him as an outsider. 

He went up the sycamore tree to see who Jesus is, but it is Jesus who sees who Zacchaeus truly is, and pronounces that salvation has come to his house because he too is a Son of Abraham.

Zacchaeus had been lost, not to God, but cast out by the community, and had to be sought by Jesus - found and called, given his rightful recognition as a child of Abraham, challenging the blindness of the community which had put him on the other side. 

He ran to see Jesus, he hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus as his guest. He didn’t hesitate when the people grumbled, he stood his ground and stood up for himself. 

We read - he was the chief tax-collector and was rich and so we think he must be a bad guy. It was common in the Jewish storytelling tradition to set up pantomime-like caricatures of the good guy and the bad guy but don’t be fooled, the Gospels use this form because we recognise it so readily and then spectacularly subvert it, to challenge our expectations and our presumptions.

Luke is using Zacchaeus not as a model of a sinner in need of repentance but as a surprising and challenging model of a child of Abraham, salvation has come to this house today, Jesus has walked into his life because he too is a child of Abraham, Christ is claiming his own, the one which the religious types has abandoned. Gathering him in to the one fold of the one Shepherd.

So where does that leave us?

You might wonder what point there is reading the scriptures if the message is so obfuscated. Well - scripture needs to be prayed with, it needs to be chewed over, contemplated, to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal its message to us.

Luke’s Gospel in particular gives prominence to the out-cast and the marginalised and, in that sense, it is truly a Gospel for today challenging lazy assumptions and pernicious fears which have us mentally separating the deserving from the undeserving, those who are in and those who are out. 

The scheme and purpose of Jesus is to gather us all in together, not to divide or to separate. 

And so we come to this Eucharist praying once again for the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us to recognise where our eyes need to be opened to be able to see one another more clearly as belonging to one family under God.