Sermon: Jesus & Zacchaeus : The Church & The World
The Reverend David Sudron, Sacrist and Succentor; Minor Canon
Preached on 6th July 2008
by The Reverend David Sudron
And when they saw it, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." S. Luke 19:7
About a year ago the Bishop of Durham asked me, in a manner not dissimilar to Sue Lawley presenting Desert Island Discs, which book of the Bible I would choose to take with me into an hypothetical exile. Instinct yielded an immediate reply: St Luke's Gospel.
The simplest reason is that I have long felt that St Luke and I understand each other. The only Gentile author in the canon has an immediate appeal to a young man who came into the life of the Church from the outside. You see, Fr Sudron was never a pious infant in the Sunday School; he was never a angel-faced chorister or an altar boy; he had no need to kick against the Church as a teenager because he had never had anything to do with her (notwithstanding the very boring reality that he was never a rebellious teenager). When you feel drawn into her life in your late teens perhaps you find a ready affinity with the doctor who, likewise, came in from the outside.
In St Luke's record of Our Lord's earthly life we find a constant dialogue between Christ and the lost he came to save that is always alert to relationship between God and his people, both those who are most obviously already members of the club, and those who are yet to become them. Hence the attractiveness of the bond between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Their encounter can be read as a metaphor of the relationship between the Church and the peoples of the world and between each Christian and his neighbour on another, and what ought to drive and inform those relationships
The point is obscured by one of the many instances of inaccurate translation in the NRSV. It fails to convey in the simplest terms what Zacchaeus was doing at the beginning, and what Jesus says he is about towards the end: that is to say, ‘seeking'. Zaccheaus was seeking to see Jesus; Jesus came to seek and save the lost. There is here an harmonious intent: they are seeking each other. And there is more. Zacchaeus's reaction to Jesus is to give up half of his goods and to promise restoration to any he has defrauded; Jesus rejoices that salvation has come to his house and heaps upon him the honour of acclaiming him a son of Abraham.
When this text is set as the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday before Advent in Year C, the year of St Luke, it is paired with verses from the first chapter of Isaiah where a very different kind of response is portrayed. In them, God speaks through Isaiah of his loathing of the hypocrisy of the people of Judah, chiefly their empty religious gestures. He decries their lack of inward conviction, which they try to conceal through the performance of rituals devoid, in God's eyes, of content by reason of their waywardness of heart.
It is people of exactly this kind who are the ones grumbling about Jesus's intention to go to Zacchaeus's house that day. They are caught up in a world of outward appearances, incapable of seeing the dignity of the child of God within. They obsess with the trivia of status and are blind to the movement of the heart. Not so our Blessed Lord. In Zaccheaus he recognizes a man of the world who has need of more than the world can afford him. Jesus reveals himself repeatedly to be more concerned with the untidy lives of people who are compromised by the ways of the world than with the religious elite of his day. And just as this was the pattern of Jesus and Zacchaeus then, so should this be the pattern of his Church and his world in our day.
What concerns me gravely is the extent to which this is manifestly not the case. The Church of England, which is the only one on which I am remotely qualified to comment, becomes steadily more inward-looking with each passing year. The issues with which she is reported to be concerned by the media seem farther and farther removed from the concerns of the majority of people living in England today. A cursory glance at the agenda for issues under discussion at this week-end's session of the General Synod will reveal scant, if any, resemblance to the picture of national or international life at present. We should be embarrassed, and stirred to ask why it is only when the Lord Archbishop of this province makes his Presidential Address is reality spoken of in the chamber.
It used to happen when David Jenkins was Bishop of this diocese. He once furiously interrupted a trivial debate in Synod to ask why no-one was talking about the fact that there were families in his diocese who were knocking on his door to tell him that they had not sufficient money to put shoes on their children's feet to send them to school. Why is not the Church of England writing reports of the depth of insight and impact that Faith in the City had? Why are Synod debates not raising hell about the squalor and depravity in which too many families in England are still living, instead of proposing terms of service for the parochial clergy far short of modern standards of employment? Why do we not offer commentary of the calibre of which we are more than capable on the ethical difficulties of cheap fashion and the exploitation which enables it to exist? Why are we spending so much time agonising over who may enter into loving relationships with whom when our society needs a mature and coherent narrative of the sanctity of human life in the face of the outrageous liberties that are taken with it?
While the modern-day Pharisees grumble, modern-day England is seeking the Church as assiduously as Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, but the inward-looking group we are in danger of becoming will not be fit for purpose. Where churches look outwards and show their willingness to work with all sorts of partners the relationships flourish. That is the model at Grimsby Parish Church: no proselytism, just partnership. Across the country, Church schools enjoy the confidence of parents and government, and for very good reason. Contrary to popular misrepresentation we are opening them not in the comfort-zones of the middle-classes, but in some of the most deprived and difficult parts of the country: and we encourage excellence there, too.
This is no novel approach: it is about seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Where that happens, all other things are added, and the things we thought were insurmountable problems resolve themselves because Christ seeks us where we seek him, in the places and the debates where he calls us to be, and the results will be no less wonderful for us than they were for Zacchaeus. When we shake off this self-imposed tendency to withdraw and introspect, when, with Archbishop Sentamu and Bishop Jenkins we believe that we have something precious to offer our world, we will do no better than to hurry along to the house of Zacchaeus: a house to which salvation has come indeed, to the rejoicing of all the children of Abraham.