November 3, 2013, Pentecost 24 – Who, Me?
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There are a lot of things in this world – even true things – that are hard to believe. I’m married to a math professor, and Carroll is always telling me things I have a hard time believing. He has been teaching statistics for the last couple of years, and there are statistics facts that are pretty much impossible for me to believe. One problem that kind of drives me crazy is called the “Monty Hall” problem. If you remember the show “Let’s Make a Deal” from TV long ago, Monty Hall was the host. On the show, the contestant stood in front of three doors. The idea was that he got to choose one of them, and he could have whatever was behind that door. There was always a super-awesome car behind one of the doors or a trip for two to Tahiti or something, and then behind the other doors there would be maybe a nice set of dining room furniture behind one, and then behind the third one maybe a year’s supply of dog food or something not quite so desirable. The “Monty Hall problem” in statistics is about making that choice. Here’s how the problem goes: you are the contestant, and you get to choose one of the doors, A, B, or C. So say you choose B, so you have one chance out of three to win the car or the trip to Tahiti. But before Monty’s lovely assistant opens the door you have chosen, Monty offers to open one of the other doors for you. And after he opens the other door, you have the option of staying with your original guess, door B, or changing your guess and picking the other door. So you’d think – I’d think – that you’d still have one chance in three of being right about which was the door with the best prize. But the Monty Hall problem says that if you change your choice you double your chances to get the BMW. Or the fabulous vacation for two. I trust my husband to be right about that, but I have a hard time really believing it.
We hear something, and we listen to the explanation, and sometimes we even admit that it must be true, but there are things that deep down we don’t really believe. They kind of sit on the surface where we can see them and take them out for show, but they just refuse to sink in. And I think that one of those truths that we have a really hard time accepting is the truth that we are saints. You are the holy ones of God. Of course, we’ve all heard it and we’ll tell anyone that asks us that it is true, just like I’ll tell you that if you’re on “Let’s Make a Deal” you ought to change your answer if you want the car. But in the core of our being we know that we are not saints. Let’s face it, we live with ourselves, and we know all about the dinginess and smallness of our lives. We hear all those nasty little things that our mind says even if we never speak them aloud. We know all our small dishonesties, all our petty selfishness, all those yucky little things that are part of who we are. And we know perfectly well that real saints are good people who do great things, people like Mother Teresa and Saint Francis and maybe Bishop Bill, and the special people whose names we will read aloud when we gather to make Eucharist together this morning. Maybe we sometimes can feel like saints when we are at church, when we receive communion or when we are singing a hymn that touches our hearts. But then we drive to Potsdam and somebody cuts in front of us and we call them a name we wouldn’t want our grandchildren to repeat, or we get home and have to clean up after the dog, or we get into an argument with a cashier at Walgreen’s about whether she rung our purchase up right, and we know in our hearts that this is not the life of a saint, no matter what the preacher told us.
Zacchaeus is the man for us. I love the story of Zacchaeus, because he is unpopular and short and a little bit ridiculous, and I can really relate to him. Here he is in this story we’ve all known since our Sunday School days, but he’s not a storybook character made up to teach a lesion, he’s a real human being, who lived and cheated people and made a bundle of money in the city of Jericho in the early part of the first century. I imagine him looking something like Danny DeVito, if you know who that is: a fat, selfish little man that everyone despises, trying to squeeze through the crowds of people but no one cares to let him through. And he is so desperate to see this Jesus he’s been hearing about that, even though he is a grown man, he hoists himself up in a tree like a complete fool so he can at least catch a glimpse of him. I wonder if he even knew himself why he felt such a burning desire to see Jesus, but I am pretty sure that of all the people in that crowd, Zacchaeus was probably one of the last to expect that Jesus would bother to catch even a glimpse of him, and certainly he would never have expected Jesus to know his name, and to call him, and to want to come and share a meal with him.
The wonderful thing about the story is what happens to Zacchaeus when he hears Jesus calling him. He might have fallen at Jesus’ feet and wept with shame; he might have run away to hide, knowing how unworthy he was – or he might have pretended to be a righteous man and a good host, hoping Jesus wouldn’t find out about the real Zacchaeus – but he didn’t do any of those things. He was simply overcome with joy, and that joy transformed him like when you touch a match to a bit of newspaper and the flame catches and immediately begins to flare up. He was filled with joy because all of a sudden all of his smallness and wickedness and loneliness and selfishness weren’t who he was anymore, because he had been called by name – Jesus knew him, and his life would never be the same again. The small things, the hoarding of coins and double-dealing and meanness, wouldn’t define his life ever again. It is the most joyful story of repentance ever; it’s like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol” – only it’s real. He cried out with joy and relief: “I’m going to give half of this stuff to the poor. And all those people I’ve cheated; I’ll repay them four times over!” He didn’t do those things to curry favor with Jesus – he already had Jesus’s favor – he did them out of sheer joy because Jesus had chosen him and bestowed his favor on Zacchaeus out of sheer grace.
Zacchaeus was a saint, because a saint is someone who is chosen and set apart to belong to God. I can say with certainty that Zacchaeus still did wicked and selfish things sometimes, that he still had to struggle with his mean little everyday demons like we all do. He was still short and probably still a little ridiculous, and he may never have been really popular. As far as we know, he didn’t ever do anything remarkably saintly in the early church: he didn’t work any miracles that we know about and he didn’t become bishop of any city as far as we know. But none of those things makes any difference at all, because who Zacchaeus really was had changed forever.
Saints are not saints because they are good or because they do wonderful and holy things. Saints are saints because Jesus called them. They are saints because he set his name on them and they are set apart to belong to God forever. We are not saints because we made a decision for Christ, or because we repented of our sins, or because we made great sacrifices for Christ. We are saints, purely and simply, because he chose us. In the gospel of John, chapter 15, where Jesus is talking to his apostles just before he is arrested and taken away to be crucified, he reminds them, “I have called you my friends. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” I think it is very helpful in our tradition that we baptize little babies, because it reminds us that the first step in belonging to God is always God’s. When we are utterly helpless and useless and even unaware God calls us. It is important for us to have faith and to act in faith, but anything really good we do is always a response to that first call of Jesus Christ, who loved us into being in the first place, and keeps on loving us into being. That’s why Paul prays for the people of Thessalonica “that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.”
You are saints. You are the holy ones, set apart for God before you were even born. The voices of the world might tell you that you are too old or too short or too dumb, not important or not gifted or not good, and those voices are never louder than when they are speaking from within your own head. But none of the smallness or dinginess of your life defines who you are because God has called you by name. Jesus looks right at you – just like he looked up in the sycamore tree and looked straight at Zacchaeus – and he says to you, “I call you my friend. You didn’t choose me; I chose you. I’m coming to your house today; come and dine with me, and I will dine with you.”
We all have a long way to go in growing up to be worthy of God’s calling, but he has taken the first step and your life will never be the same. He doesn’t call you to grovel in shame, or to wallow in your guilt and despair, or to try to pretend you’re better than you are. He just calls you to belong to him, to be his saints. If you belong to him, you will be transformed by him – in fact, if you belong to him you are being transformed by him, day by day.
Paul wrote this to the saints in Ephesus: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him.” That is our hope. Believe it and rejoice.- you are the saints of God.