A Sermon About Zacchaeus and the Klan

The Bulletin called the sermon: “Loving the Grumblers and The People Who Make them Grumble.” The text is Luke 19: 1-10.

I suppose you already know the story. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. If you grew up in church you’d have to go out of your way not to know the story. Jesus comes to town. A crowd gathers. There is a sycamore tree involved. It seems like some of these Bible stories were just made for Sunday school. Tree climbing, what kid doesn’t love tree climbing? It’s a great story for a kids Bible, very age appropriate, has a lot of easy to understand and positive morals. Zacchaeus was a wee little man…very cute.

I was feeling a bit nostalgic so I revisited some of the Zacchaeus Sunday school materials. You can find all sorts of teaching guides without too much difficulty with a quick Google search. Before too long I had gathered a nice quiver full of Zacchaeus lessons. And as I was reading through the lessons I tried to imagine that I was sitting in Sunday School with our teacher Ruth Huber. Ms. Huber taught kindergarten and 1st graders for what must have been decades. She gave every student a pocket-sized Gideons Bible–New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs–every student got one. Mine was orange. And I read through the lesson plans and thought how this is a wonderful story. Tell the kids: Sometimes we have a hard time seeing Jesus, just like Zacchaeus. Tell them Jesus loves little people who get pushed to the side by crowds of adults. Say Jesus doesn’t see us like other people see us. Jesus can bring about a change in a person. Jesus can bring salvation to your house. Just invite him to dinner. He always accepts invitations.

It’s a good story, isn’t it? But there’s something else, too, it’s in the middle of the passage so maybe it gets lost a little bit. Verse 7: All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” All who saw it began to grumble. Grumbled or muttered or murmered or indignantly complained. (Depending on the translation.) In any case they aren’t happy campers. I guess you wouldn’t want to emphasize that part in kids church. Children grumble enough already, so there’s no need to provide them with prompting. And yet, it seems to me that Luke’s audience is meant to identify with the grumbling, and maybe even to grumble a bit themselves. “All who saw it began to grumble.” That means the crowd in the story but I think it also means the reader. Assuming you do not have a Messiah-complex such that you identify yourself directly with Jesus Christ, and assuming you are not a tax-collector, then probably you’re meant to identify with the crowd. Jesus eats with Zacchaeus and when the American church-goers see it they all grumble, murmer, indignantly complain.

I very rarely hear preaching about a grumble-inducing Jesus. Maybe the teachings and actions of Jesus cause other people to grumble. But for insiders there usually isn’t grumbling, at least so long as Jesus acts the way he’s supposed to act. And Jesus normally acts like the moral exemplar he’s meant to be. You know, Luke’s Jesus is especially admirable. Luke’s gospel is the social justice gospel. Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with poor people, socially marginal people, oppressed people. Jesus loves the people that other people have a hard time loving, which is basically what makes him so great. So if Jesus is causing people to grumble then it shouldn’t be his fan club. Other people, maybe. Like how some of the authorities see that Jesus upsets everything good and proper and then they start to conspire against him. If you have not yet  learned to love poor and marginal people the way Jesus does, well, maybe then Jesus would cause you to grumble.

There was a minister, he only recently died, there was a minister named William who achieved some level of notoriety because he had the guts to love the people that other people had a hard time loving. People could look at William and say, “Now, here’s a minister who actually understands Jesus.” Because William walked the walk even at risk of great personal harm. He found poor people, oppressed people, marginal people, all those people who were subject to violence because they didn’t accept their place. Those were William’s people and when he spent time with them all of the right-minded Christians praised him for it. And he earned the earned the disdain of powerful people and all of the people who favored the status quo just like Jesus, because he loved marginal and oppressed people just like Jesus.

“Now here’s a minister who really gets it.” The National Council of Churches was very impressed. Northerners were very impressed. The liberals loved it. Will Campbell was probably one of the most respected and best-known white, southern integrationists. A brave, moral man, a minister with the heart of Christ, loving all those people that other people have a hard time loving.

But, then, you know, the grumbling started. Sometimes these moral exemplars have a habit of doing downright distasteful things. And then the fan club starts to grumble. Luke says it was Zacchaeus that finally did it for the crowd of Jesus followers. “You eat with tax collectors? You do know what tax collectors do, right?” I think tax-collector probably sounds sounds fairly tame to Christian ears. Of course we know that the Bible people despised tax collectors, those are sinners with a capital S. Tax collectors are the sort of people any polite society ought to lock up for a good long while, but tax-collector doesn’t really carry that sort of connotation, at least not for me. So when I read tax-collector in the Bible I try to think instead: extortion, wage-theft, foreclosure fraud, criminal cartels. You probably wouldn’t even know where to find a tax collector’s house unless you were involved in some seedy stuff, too. So I can understand the grumbling. You take time away from poor and marginalized people to spend time with the very people who’ve made them poor and marginalized? You’re expecting, what, a change of heart? Look, there’s moral optimism and then there’s delusion.

Well, Will Campbell started acting a little bit crazy. He started visiting, spending time with the Klan. And people said, The Klan? Like as in Ku Klux? Yeah, the Klan. The most famous white integrationist preacher wants to become a chaplain to the Klan. Get to know them a bit, make visits at their places of residence, and to go talk with them in jail once they’re finally locked up like they ought to be. They said you must be out of your mind.

A group of students invited Will Campbell to give a short talk in response to a documentary about the Klan. The film ends and he says, “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech. If anyone has any questions I will be glad to try to answer them.” And there wasn’t just grumbling but practically a riot. Pandemonium. Angry outbursts. Campbell says it was one of the few times in his life he had ever been genuinely fearful of bodily harm. “Pro-klansman because I’m pro-human.” And Campbell writes that  he “was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansman is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, the other with an ideology.” Of course the wording was questionable but you’d think he might’ve been granted a hearing based on the pro-human part.

But no, he gave his speech and then “All who saw it began to grumble…”

Do you know what’s most upsetting to a lot of people?  It’s not the callousness of tax-collectors and klansman. There is after all something even more outrageous than the willingness to harm others. What’s most upsetting is the mercy of someone who’s willing to act as if God loves all of us the same. And I know, I know. It sounds good to say. God is love; God loves us all. But you’ll make more friends saying it than doing it. And we know from the Jesus story that if you love well-enough it might just get you killed.

There is a stunning statue at Union Theological Seminary. I suppose technically its a crucifix, but it’s not like any crucifix I’ve seen before. The statue shows the figure of a crucified Christ but his hands are freed from their usual splayed, outstretched position and instead they are wrapped around another human figure in a welcoming embrace. The sculpture is called Welcome Home, and this is what the sculptor says about it: “Welcome home is at the heart of our spiritual life. This sculpture is more than the father welcoming home the prodigal son. It is also the mother and daughter, the son and the mother, two friends long apart, two people who love each other, as well as the lonely, the lost, the rejected and the guilty finding God’s absolute acceptance in the heart of the cross.”

And that’s what I like about the sculpture. The figure that Jesus is embracing has their back to the viewer, they are anonymous, which means Jesus could be embracing anyone.

He loves the grumblers and the people who make them grumble. Loves them all just the same. He could be embracing anyone, really.


One comment

  1. Pingback: soarlikeeagle | Loving the Unlovable

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