November 1, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 19:1-10 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "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." 9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." (NRSV)

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Here I am. The Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Jericho. This is the oldest house of worship in the town, dominating the village center with its massive presence. And I am waiting, with my colleague pastor, my deacons, my choir, waiting for this visiting dignitary Jesus of Nazareth to make his way up the green to be greeted on the steps of the church. We have a meal all prepared. The mayor will be here later to say a few words. A photographer is ready to take the headline picture for next week’s newspaper: Jesus Visits Jericho!

But wait. What has happened?? The parade has stopped a block away. Jesus has turned to the side and is calling someone down out of a tree. Who can it be? Now he is walking away from the crowd. They part to let him pass, standing aside in bewilderment.

A young girl runs up. "He has left with Zacchaeus!" she shouts.

The murmur goes up. Zacchaeus, the tax collector? It can’t be. Here we are, the gathered righteous, the representatives of sobriety, decency, and patriotism in our community. We have everything ready for this man Jesus, and he turns aside to go to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the collaborator with the Romans, the swindler who cheats us out of our hard earned money? This is an offense - could there be any greater? This Jesus cannot be a man of God, but is a man of the devil!!! Well, let him go the house of Zacchaeus, and let him enjoy the stolen riches of his table, and let him share the fate we all wish for that traitor and crook.

Such might well have been the thoughts of the religious community of Jericho on the day described in our Gospel lesson from Luke. It would have been a shock, an offense, for the Lord to have chosen Zacchaeus as his host that day. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, and as Virnette described last week, tax collectors were considered sinful from the religious point of view, traitors from the political point of view, and criminals from the business point of view.

Zacchaeus was the kind of man that parents would scurry their children away from, the kind of man you would cross the street to avoid. If his name came up in conversation, it would only be in a tone of derision or shame. He was a target of public mockery, hatred and hostility.

I suppose if you were a young man in the town of Jericho and you wanted to prove yourself to your peers, Zacchaeus would present an easy mark. After all, your whole life long you’d heard people deride his kind, speak of them as less than human, identify them as worthy of contempt. You might slide up next to Zacchaeus one night at the local inn and have a few sips of wine with him. You’d find things to talk about and make it appear that you were sympathetic to his situation. And then you might lure him out into the darkness of night and set upon him to rob him and beat him and even tie him to some post out in the fields and leave him to live or die, it would not matter. After all, he was less than human, and wouldn’t the world be a better place with one less tax collector?!

Of if you were a religious zealot, you might stalk him, following him from his place of work to his home night after night. You’d learn about his habits and plan how you might destroy him when his guard is down and he thinks he is in a place of safety and comfort. You might sneak up and right in his kitchen, right where he sits down to table with his wife and children, you would stab him in the back. This would not only take care of Zacchaeus, but it would put the fear into all the other tax collectors as well. This certainly would be righteous in the sight of God, for the work of men like Zacchaeus is an abomination before the eyes of the Lord.

And yet, this is the man that Jesus sees, this is the one whose name he calls out, this is the one he chooses to honor with his presence at a meal. Not the usual choice of dinner companion for a teacher of God’s law. Not the usual choice of host and friend for a healer and holy man.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to celebrate saints known and unknown. And the story of Zacchaeus reminds us that God often chooses saints who are not among the group we might think worthy of such a designation. The saints and martyrs of God’s purpose are a varied lot and not the usual suspects. Sometimes they are even the social outcasts, the targets of hate and violence.

Did you recognize in the scenarios I presented with Zacchaeus two stories from recent headlines - the stories of Matthew Shephard and of Dr. Barnett Slepian?

Matthew was a gay college student who was beaten and left to die, and Dr. Slepian was shot in the back through his kitchen window.

Dr. Slepian’s crime, in the eye of his executioner, was the work he did in caring for women, especially poor women, through pregnancy, infertility, childbirth and menopause. This sometimes included abortions, so he became a target for zealots.

Matthew’s crime was not what he did but who he was. He was a student at the University of Wyoming who found his greatest comfort and intimacy with people of his own gender. This made him, in the eyes of his killers, less than human, someone not to be tolerated in the company of decent folk. How many times do you think his killers heard jokes, slurs, curses and threats against gay people. How many times do you think they were influenced by the religious, political, and cultural climate which ostracizes or criminalizes homosexuals.

Matthew did not choose any specific course of action which separated him from the crowd and would put him in harms way, and yet he has become a martyr for the most basic cause of human tolerance. In the aftermath of his murder many are calling on churches and all people of good will to be more vocal in standing up and speaking out to defend the place of gay people in our society - not as individuals in need of a cure or a conversion, but in affirmation, openness, and respect.

Dr. Barnett Slepian was at a much different point in his life. He was following a path driven by compassionate choices that he knew made him an enemy to an increasingly unbalanced fringe element. He could have been completely anonymous if he had confined his medical work to his private practice. But he was dedicated to providing the same range of services to the poor women of Buffalo as he did to his private patients. It was his work at the clinic of the Buffalo Women's Gynecological Services that made him a target.

Shephard and Slepian were not the usual suspects for martyrdom, yet their deaths create a crisis of conscience in our nation, and in that they take on a burden larger than their own lives. Bearing that burden they remind us of the one who "is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; and we esteemed him not.

Of course, not all Saints and Martyrs are found in the headlines. Some are found in the schools, in the workplaces, in the homes, nursing homes and hospitals of our own community. This morning on our bulletin cover we acknowledge the work of the Visiting Nurses Association, which is celebrating it’s 80th year in New Milford. And this afternoon at 3:00 we will host the Visiting Nurses for their 15th annual Hospice Interfaith Remembrance Service.

At this service we will not only honor the work of the men and women of Visiting Nurses and Hospice, but we will also honor the memory of the those in our community who have died and offer our prayers for the comfort and consolation of their loved ones and friends. Could it be that hidden among the list of names to be read and remembered are one or two or more that are saints in the eyes of God. I’m sure there are, for God sees the kindly deeds that never make the news; God knows each act of self denial, each tear shed in love and compassion, each trial and temptation overcome. God’s list of Saints surely includes many who seem quite ordinary to us, but in God’s eyes have earned a crown of glory and a blessed rest.

I am reminded of what was read on Thursday at the memorial service for one of God’s saints, our dear friend and Deacon Barbara Holsten:

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-5


1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

and no torment will ever touch them.

2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,

and their departure was thought to be a disaster,

3 and their going from us to be their destruction;

but they are at peace.

4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,

their hope is full of immortality.

5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,

because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;

"Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today" said the Lord. And the Lord went into the house of this most unlikely saint and sat at table with him and blessed him.

Today we are guests in the house of the Lord; today we are invited to the table to share a meal and receive a blessing. We are not the usual suspects for this great honor, and it is extended to us out of grace and mercy, not out of judgement. It is a spiritual meal that reminds us of our Lord’s sacrifice and binds us to the living and the dead whose souls are in the hands of God. It is a spiritual blessing that opens us to the fullness of God’s love and sets us free from the kind of fear and hatred that inspire acts of prejudice and violence: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

This is a day to honor all the Saints, known and unknown. It is a day to put aside fear and trust that the same God who brought Christ from death to life will lead us through all the trials of this earthly pilgrimage and open for us the gates to life everlasting; and there, beyond the gates, in the beautiful light of God’s holiness, there we will sit again at table with those we love and share in the glorious communion of all the saints.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Alleluia, Amen.

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