Speaking on behalf of the Union Church community, it is so wonderful to be here with the saints of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church -- all friends gathered here today -- to enjoy together the New York City Marathon and cheer on all the runners-- and to celebrate all the saints who finished the great marathon of life -- and to cheer each other on in the race that is set before each of us.
This marathon, which snakes its way through the five boroughs on a 26.2 mile course, is a great metaphor for life. The 48,000 runners we are about to cheer on come from all walks of life, all ages, with varying abilities. Some are elite athletes like Geofrey Mutai and Edna Kiplagat (both from Kenya); like American long-distance runners Amy Hastings and Jason Hartmann – all who manage to complete this race in slightly over 2 - 21/2 hours.
On the other hand, there are ordinary people, people with challenges, people who like challenges. People like Michael LaForgia, a double amputee who barely survived bacterial meningitis. He’s out there. His goal is to show people that anyone, regardless of physical capabilities, can achieve greatness.
There’s Brooklyn’s own Bryan Steinhauer, who was the victim of a brutal beating that left him in a 3 month coma -- no mobility-- not expected to talk again. His recovery has been slow and hard. He’s out there. Running for the Team, Minds over Matter, Bryan’s in it to give to other people the chance he had to recover.
There are people like Kristy Wassenaar, whose daughter Kelcey was diagnosed with lymphoma in High school. There’s Meredith Simmons running to combat rheumatoid arthritis. There’s Jen Correa, who lost her home to Hurricane Sandy last year. There’s Good Shepherd’s own --Anthony Stevens -- on-site counselor for the Lutheran Counseling Center running for the Wounded Warrior Project. Well over 100 Teams are out there, raising close to 7 million dollars for charity.
Imagine all the hours of training, effort, dedication that this race represents. The failures, injuries and setbacks. The determination not to quit, despite the physical discomfort. Overcoming limitations, some self-imposed, other physical. Facing obstacles of the mind that say -- give up! You’ll never complete this. Staying the course even when every muscle of your body cries out in fatigue and pain. Staying the course, on will power, on faith, on the training ingrained in every fiber of your body-- because someone in need depends on you – and there are millions of people out there, lining the course, cheering, believing in you, telling you – keep on! Keep on!
We are here today also to celebrate a different marathon – the marathon of faith. Our course is not measured in miles but in countless acts of mercy, forgiveness and selflessness in good times and bad. Our training is not predominately exercises of the body, but in discipline of worship, prayer, study, and charity. Our race is not for one day out of the year, but every day, of every year, of our lives. We run not just for ourselves, but for Team Jesus -- for all people who feel lost, alone, ostracized – so that they might experience love, acceptance and hope in their lives.
Our gospel lesson introduces us to one of our Team mates – an unusual man named Zacchaeus of Jericho. Zacchaeus’ name means “pure,” but by many accounts Zacchaeus was anything but pure. Zach was the chief tax collector of a well-to-do district, Jericho. Jericho was the hub of several important trade routes – making it a significant import/export site for the ancient world. Marc Anthony once presented Cleopatra with Jericho as a gift -- with Arabia thrown in.
Lucky Zacchaeus built his wealth by co-opting the Roman system of taxation and boldly making it work for him. The Romans wanted a tax quota, and once that was satisfied --- the tax-collector could charge whatever he wanted. So Zacchaeus, a Jew, could exhort money and seize goods from fellow Jews. He and his cohorts could stop a person and assess duties on nearly everything in his possession. A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, and for the merchandise that it carried. As a result, Zacchaeus grew fabulously wealthy. His community resented him, envied him, ostracized him, declared him a traitor. In face of all the criticism, Zach maintained his status through boldness, drive, and ambition.
This boldness served Zacchaeus well. The disapproval of the crowd, his small stature, didn’t keep him away on that momentous day that Jesus came to Jericho. Zacchaeus couldn’t press through the crowd so he did the next best thing: he climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus. How many wealthy men would make themselves look foolish in this way? Imagine the fine clothes he would be wearing – what rich man in his right mind would risk getting dirty, getting his tunic torn, have curses or stones hurled at him to be seen in a tree? Why didn’t Zacchaeus send a servant to do the work for him? It is plain: Zacchaeus had to do this himself. He had to see Jesus with his own eyes. Obstacles meant nothing to him. Why Zacchaeus was so keen on seeing Jesus, we don’t know.
What we do know, in the passage preceding today’s lesson, Jesus had restored sight to an unnamed beggar, a blind man (Luke 18:35-43) on the outskirts of Jericho. The crowds tried to silence the beggar away. But he persisted. What do you want me to do? Jesus asked him. “Lord, let me see again!” and so word got out. So what did Zacchaeus want to see? Did Zacchaeus wonder, if Jesus would heal a beggar, would he also heal a rich man, equally cast off by the people? We don’t know what ran through Zaccheaus’ mind on that day. All we know is in his cleverness; he found a way to see Jesus. He conquered his obstacles, even though he was short in stature. He climbed that sycamore tree. He went out on a limb. He didn’t care who saw him, or what they said. He was going to see Jesus.
Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise when Jesus noticed him, called him by name, and declared: “hurry and come down, Zacchaeus; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus elects to stay at the sumptuous home of the districts most notorious sinner. The people grumble and complain – how is it that Jesus would go to the home of this sinner, and have table fellowship with him?
Jesus proposes forgiveness and acceptance on the scale the religious management can’t fathom. Jesus’ act of generosity unleashes an equally open-hearted, response from Zacchaeus: “Look, half 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.” Zacchaeus commits to a standard of restitution that is even greater than Jewish and Roman law. His detractors grumble, wondering how Jesus chose table fellowship with such a sinner. But Jesus declares: today salvation has come to his house.
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus demonstrates how God’s love should blow open our lives. It should free us from sin. From negative thinking. From focusing on judgment or what others think -- from giving in to the obstacles that would keep us from seeing Jesus. Zacchaeus shows us how to find Jesus – Jesus who restored physical sight to the blind beggar and a spiritual sight to the wealthy Zaccheaus. Jesus, who comes to us today, asking us what he can do for us? Jesus, who initiates an invitation to stay with us, to eat with us – a Jesus who first sees us, sees through us, and restores our ability to see the world as God sees it – in all its potential, in all the opportunities for love and service that exist – to see, really see – the people around us. That’s what our marathon of faith is about – learning to see – risking to see – even if it means climbing out on that limb.
Today’s marathon is a triumph of 48,000 lives, 12,000 volunteers, over 2 million spectators – who – for a number of hours – come together and confront a world that tempts us to think: it can’t be done, keep quiet, stay back, we’re too old, we’re too young, we can’t make a difference. Despite the threats – or fears of the attacks – the drive to overcome adversity today prevails. So what if there are people who think you’re an outcast. Don’t be afraid to stand out. So what if people label you – you know who you are, so don’t forget it. So what if people stand in the way. See that tree? Climb it.
Team Jesus, today is our day to stretch ourselves in spirit—to take the challenge – stand out -- to be hospitable – to be generous -- to bring restoration, to glorify God. To help others catch that glimpse of Jesus and find wholeness and acceptance in his name. That’s our Team. Don’t be afraid to stand and be noticed.
Some of the ancient church legends say that Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias, by the apostles, and it was Zacchaeus who took the place of Judas Iscariot after Judas died. Some say Zacchaeaus was the first bishop of Caesarea. We really don’t know. What we do know is that seeing Jesus changed Zacchaeaus’ life, and he used his money, his talents for building up the vision of Team Jesus on earth. A vision that stretched down through the centuries. A vision that finds us here today. A vision that says to each of us –Team -- run for the outcasts, run for those who have lost their way, run for who’ve never seen Jesus. If the course gets difficult, painful, frustrating – don’t worry. We’ve got each other – we’ve got the great cloud of saints cheering us on – and we’ve got Jesus – our companion, our goal, our coach – alongside us and calling us forward – until we cross that finish line. Amen.
According to Clement of Alexandria, in his book Stromata, Zacchaeus was surnamedMatthias by the apostles, and took the place of Judas Iscariot after Jesus' ascension. Luke told us that Matthias in the beginning was with Jesus since the baptism of John (Acts 1:21-23). John also told us that later many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (John 6:60-66). The later Apostolic Constitutions identify "Zacchaeus the Publican" as the first bishop of Caesarea (7.46).