The Life of Faith: A sermon on Isaiah 1 and Luke 19:1-10

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oby the Rev. Anna Doherty

What does God think of worship?

Apparently, if we take today’s text from Isaiah as our guide, then the answer is, sometimes, not that much.

I have to laugh, because the voice of God in today’s reading from Isaiah, sounds like many of the things people say—things I myself have said—when we resist going to church.

Ugh, it’s boring.

I don’t like the incense.

All the seeming meaningless rituals…

As God says, “I cannot endure it… they have become a burden to me…I am weary of it.”

God sounds just like we sound, when we struggle with a sense of meaningless, repetition, or boredom in the way we worship.

It’s actually quite a profound thing, that the voice of God expresses dissatisfaction with worship.

It gives us, as people of faith, permission to reflect critically, and to recognize that if worship is no longer meaningful…

…than that is not the way that worship is meant to be, and it is a sign that something needs to change.

Maybe it is something in our personal experience that is affecting our spiritual lives…

I once had someone say to me that they had experienced so much difficulty in their personal life that they simply couldn’t pray anymore.

But this person still found satisfaction in coming to worship because other people prayed in their stead…

…until such a time that this individual felt they were able to pray once more.

Or maybe worship starts to feel like a struggle because our lives are too busy, too full of distractions…

…and worship becomes another task to do, another duty to fulfill without a sense of joy and gratitude about doing it.

Or maybe, sometimes, as is the case for God in today’s reading from Isaiah, worship feels rote and meaningless…

…because it becomes a passive participation in the life of God, rather than an active, engaging one.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, God marginalizes passive acts of reconciliation—offering sacrifices, incense, just sitting back and offering satisfaction to God…

These kinds of acts seem to make God feel weary and dispirited.

But active acts of engagement, those leave God feeling fulfilled and blessed by God’s people.

As God says, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.”

It would seem, based on what God says about God’s own experience of worship…

…that worship that results in an active engagement with God and God’s people…

whether it is through acts of justice and mercy, or simply arguing things out with God…

Active, engagement with God and God’s people is an act of worship that is pleasing to God.

We are called, in other words, to an active transformation of life through our ritual acts of worship.

The one should facilitate the other…we don’t worship for its own sake.

We worship as a way of bringing us closer to God and becoming more fully the people God calls us to be.

Which brings me to today’s gospel reading from Luke.

Most often, the story of Zacchaeus is interpreted as a story of repentance.

The short, wealthy tax collector, through the grace of Jesus Christ, repents of his wrongdoing.

In my mind’s eye, I immediately picture Zacchaeus as this short, dumpy, kind of endearingly silly little man…

…who follows Jesus like a puppy to repentance.

It’s a sweet story, which is why it has been turned into so many children’s songs and books.

But, if we look a little closer at the text, rather than serving simply as a model for repentance…

Zacchaeus actually demonstrates what it means to live an active, engaged life of faith and worship…

Even though he is, according to the standards of his day, a sinner.

The Greek adjective in today’s gospel that is usually translated as Zacchaeus being “short in stature” …

actually describes Zacchaeus as being simply “diminished” in some way.

Give the context of the crowds and Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus, it is natural for us to assume that Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he was too short to see.

But the truth is, in the original Greek, Zacchaeus could have climbed a tree because he was “diminished” in some other way.

Maybe he was such an unpopular sinner that the crowds actually won’t let him in to see.

Maybe he doesn’t think he is worthy to see Jesus face-to-face, and so he climbs a tree instead.

We don’t actually know the full circumstances, because the text doesn’t tell us.

But we do know that Zacchaeus wants so badly to engage with Jesus Christ that he does the undignified thing, and climbs a tree.

There’s actually some symbolism in the fact that Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree.

The nuts of the sycamore tree, despite being quite tasty, were viewed as an inferior and humble food, and were consumed only by those who did not have the resources to eat other things.

Zacchaeus is so “diminished” that he not only climbs a tree, but an inferior one at that.

And yet, despite all this.

Despite Zacchaeus diminished status…Jesus sees him, because of Zacchaeus’ strong desire to see Jesus.

And it may well be, that Jesus’ ability to see Zacchaeus goes beyond merely noticing Zacchaeus in a crowd and inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.

Jesus actually sees who Zacchaeus is, what he has been doing as a person of faith…

how he has been engaging with God and God’s people, even when others see Zacchaeus as diminished in some way.

Today’s gospel translates Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus in the future tense,

“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.”

In the original Greek, the grammar is much more nebulous than that, and it can also be translated as the present tense.

Meaning that Zacchaeus might also be saying to Jesus, “Look, I already do this. I’ve been doing this all along.”

“All along I’ve been giving half my possessions away, and making amends for my wrongdoing,

and no one noticed because they perceived me as a diminished man, a sinner in the eyes of God.”

If this is what Zacchaeus is saying, then Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus is particularly illuminating:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

While Jesus words are typically understood to be the granting of salvation to Zacchaeus because of his heartfelt repentance…

Jesus might also be saying to Zacchaeus, “I see you. I see what you have been doing, how much you follow the commandments of God,

how strongly you desire to serve God and God’s people. I see you, even when others do not.”

In other words, Jesus sees in Zacchaeus what others do not see.

Like a good Son of Abraham, Zacchaeus understands what it means to engage with God and God’s people.

Unlike, it seems, the crowds who grumble about Jesus dining with a perceived sinner…

Zacchaeus just wants desperately to be closer to God and to be more fully the person God calls him to be.

Zacchaeus understands the God of today’s reading from Isaiah, in ways that his fellow sons and daughters of Abraham do not.

That the life of faith is about active engagement, not passive watching or waiting.

We should all of us, it seems, be so desperate to see Jesus, to live lives transformed by God’s grace, that we too should be climbing trees, and serving others…

….whether or not other people notice what we do, or even if they are embarrassed by it.

Acts of worship are acts of engaging with God and God’s people in love, however we do it.

It is not just coming to church, although that is important too.

But it might also be serving someone a meal, giving of your financial resources to the work of God, or praying for someone who can’t find the words or the will to do it themselves.

However we actively engage with God and God’s people, if we do so out of love and a transformation of life, it is an act of worship.

And one that is deeply pleasing to God.