Greetings, God beloved. I’m humbled by this moment because of the fact that my homiletical hero, the wise sage, preached his final sermon from this pulpit, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., some 56 years ago. The title of his sermon was Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution. To my dear brother and friend, the Reverend Canon Leonard Hamlin Sr., thank you for this invitation. Thank you for your pioneering ministry in this place. To the Reverend Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan, thank you for presiding this morning. And to Dean Hollerith and this wonderfully hospitable staff, I am grateful to you. And to this amazing choir. Won’t you give them a hand? Absolutely amazing. For the two hours they have given me to preach, I want to talk from the theme Almost Christian. Pray with me. God eternal, God of peace and love, we ask for wisdom for this moment. Wisdom to lay every care, placing every confidence in the life-giving witness and word of humanity’s prophet, priest, and sage. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength, rock and companioning presence. Let it be so. Amen.

Luke’s gospel, the 19th chapter, verses one through nine, and it reads, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd, he could not because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus because he was going to pass that way. 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’. So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’. 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’. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost’.

What does hospitality look like when Jesus is on the scene? What about salvation or mercy or grace when Jesus shows up? What does forgiveness resemble when Jesus is on the scene? To grapple with these questions is to be at the heart of all things Christian, and not in some generic sense, but as culturally particular human beings shaped by the morés and folkways of their cradle communities from which they take their personhood. The persistent picture of this present reality is the picture of pain, disillusionment, and grief. Our culture has been disintegrating for some time now. One need not go far to see that times are dark and to scan the globe is to notice that sin and evil are not geographically specific. Hospitality and hostility, though etymologically kin in our times, the latter has effectively trumped the former. Not only is Christian fellowship fragmented, greed has gratitude on the ropes.

Because we have more questions about our questions than answers to our questions, we who confess Christ as Savior, and claim to be discipled by him as recipients of new life because of his atoning death, we have some explaining to do. In a world where community cohesion seems nearly impossible, and acts of stewardship are perceived as negotiable. Acts of spiritual stewardship on an earth that is mad at us. Community cohesion in a ‘that’s too bad for you’ world. Where acting justly, living faithfully in holy pursuit of the wisdom of God, is seen as good but not compulsory. We have passed on a spiritual legacy to a generation of seekers, our youth, that is at worst unbiblical and at best theologically suspect. When Christianity is in service to the self in disregard of the wellbeing of community and to which we’ve incurred sacred debts, something of what it means to have consequential faith is lost.

My Youth Ministry Professor at Princeton Seminary, Kenda Creasy Dean, claims that while a majority of American teenagers consider themselves Christian, they are in fact Almost Christian. They believe a God created the universe and watches over life. They believe that God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as the Bible teaches, as do most other religions. They believe the central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. They believe God gets involved in one’s life when a person needs God to resolve a problem. And they believe good people go to heaven when they die. They espouse a version of Christianity that she labels ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ where God is cast as life coach who wants us to do the right things and feel good about ourselves.

The only problem with this version of Christianity is that it requires very little from us. Instead of God being active in our lives spiritually, animating our work, the primary role of God is passive. To be Almost Christian means going through the motions of religion without committing to an authentic, meaningful relationship with God. Such anemically formed faith says Dean, teenagers are not likely to practice their faith beyond high school. So what does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian in a world that has made the self a kind of God, a world that has made God American, our flag sacrosanct. And Jesus, a Nordic English speaker, plucked from his Palestinian Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Christian in a country that enthrones a form of patriotism and leaves no room for repentance? A Christian in a country that prizes amassing wealth over authentic worship, a country that has made the Christian faith about dollars and cents without the demands of discipleship. This is where we are, but “the goal”, says Dean, “is to urge the young towards spiritual maturity, pushing them toward spiritual growth, preparing them to speak publicly about their faith, to show them the value of reaching out to others, the value of exercising moral and ethical responsibility, to encourage in them a spirit of gratitude and hospitality because we, Christ’s Body, value this’.

Luke’s accounting of the wee little man, Zacchaeus’, conversion represents one among several episodic acts of Jesus, which intensify hostilities with various community gatekeepers. Jesus extension of mercy to the wealthy- despised, which takes the form of table fellowship, sets off alarms in Zacchaeus’ case. The storyline is uncomplicated. A crowd gathers in Jericho, nearing the end of Jesus public ministry. Zacchaeus is simply identified as a short and rich chief tax collector climbs up a tree so that he can survey the commotion down below undetected. In other words, Zacchaeus is Facebook’s first century forerunner. He voyeurs unnoticed, so he thinks, but Jesus eyes him and beckons him down and says, “You are hosting me today”. To which Zacchaeus, in a sense, he says to Jesus, “I am? Me?” “Yes, you”. “Well, Jesus, let’s let you do it”. He thinks to himself, “Who turns down an invitation from Jesus?” The crowd grumbles. Everyone who saw divine hospitality in motion began to grumble and said, “He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner”.

In the scene, not only does Jesus earn the religious community’s contempt for what he does for the tax collector, it unsettles everyone on site. Even perhaps Jesus’ own disciples. Jesus saves Zacchaeus and his household on the spot. Search the text. He doesn’t ask Zacchaeus to confess faith. Jesus simply shows up with salvation. Everything about this passage explodes our theological litmus test. Now we certainly can have a vigorous discussion about conditional and unconditional election. Presbyterians like to discuss these sorts of things as we do, Baptists. Jesus doesn’t say, “Make a profession of faith.” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “Save me”. But one could constrain this gospel passage to Calvinistic syllogistic reasoning and still not close the loop on divine mystery. Zacchaeus recites no doctrinal statement. Jesus requires nothing of him only to host him in his home. Jesus sees something in him, saves him and his household on the spot. In Zacchaeus’ case, salvation comes with breaking of bread, with table fellowship, with food, and this is the context of hospitality. We might consider this encounter authentic because God’s invitations don’t always seem fair to others. Jesus lets a sinner host him and in response others are not happy. Ostensibly feeling the crowds condemnation of Jesus’ mercy shown him, Zacchaeus’ mood of elation turns into seriousness. So voluntarily Zacchaeus solemnly vows to pay restitution, or shall I say, reparations, as much as 20% above the original amount if he has defrauded anyone. In reply, Jesus lavishly bestows upon him and his household, the gift of salvation, unwarranted mercy. This is what Jesus does and what’s his purpose to do, to seek and to save the lost or are the undesirable ones, as we might say.

Jesus offers the gift of priceless freedom, undeserved kingdom credit. He obtains grace and mercy and we should know the difference. Grace is favor, undeserved and mercy cancels earned debts. This is what Jesus does. But the passage beckons us to see more, wants us to see more, when attempting to comprehend the societal implications attached to the character of God’s inbreaking reign and what our response as Christians should be in light of it. Jesus doesn’t save just any old body here. He saves a tax collector whose dealings have direct and negative consequences for community relations. By the time the gospel of Luke was written, Rome had long ceased collecting its own taxes. They hired Jewish subcontractors, the publicani, servants of the Roman Empire, to do their dirty work. Devout Jews despised the Romans for it. Taxes could chew up as much as 12.5% of a poor farmer’s crop. So the life world of Zacchaeus is pretty cut and dried. Zacchaeus functioned as a border agent, a toll collector who imposed tariffs on goods entering Jericho. Such a role brought him in frequent contact with gentile traitors. So because of the nature of his profession and persons with whom he interacted, he was doubly despised.

In short, he materially and financially profited from an oppressive world system and this is equivalent to the debt-pendent system that consigned black sharecroppers in the south to slavery of another sort. And while we inevitably come up short when seeking to find one-to-one correspondence in America’s failed democratic experiment, several facts are noteworthy to point out, that run parallel with our times, that teach us how structural injustices become so intractable, and why they persist. Taxation was one of the major causes of the Roman-Jewish war from 66 to 74CE. Taxation and confiscation of property led to the consolidation of landholding programs that enriched a small segment of society. As Rome gave contracts to wealthy landholders, foreigners and Jewish aristocrats, they collected the residuals earned by local tax officials such as Zacchaeus, who according to Luke, was Jericho’s most influential tax man.

I want you to see the kind of heart into which Jesus enters, the heart of a culturally despised person. Without question, the tax system of which Zacchaeus superintends by virtue of the profession and its political associations is inherently corrupt and abusive. Although Zacchaeus experiences conversion, he does not become a social reformer, nor is there any indication that he intends to abandon a profession so culturally despised. Whether Zacchaeus intends to prove he’s not one of the bad ones, by pledging his commitment to continue gifting the poor with half of his wealth to demonstrate his gratitude for the salvation that came to him, Zacchaeus, nonetheless, participates in an evil system that he is not likely going to challenge or work to change.

Now I like sports, but I don’t like the culture of it. It’s market driven just as virtually all things in our society. I don’t like the way athletes are worshiped and at the same time exploited to feed a fan base that cares little about them beyond their talents. I don’t like that college stadiums are built on the backs of athletes, the majority of whom are black, poor, uneducated, unpaid. While the coaches are multimillionaires. I don’t like that they receive vitriolic backlash for exercising their right to silently protest. I don’t like the sports industrial complex. Enjoy the Super Bowl tonight. I’m not saying don’t watch it, I’m just saying don’t enjoy it so much.

Even today on the Angola prison farms in Louisiana, mostly black, imprisoned workers are raising good food for Whole Foods and Costco, places you frequent, but they are forced to eat poorer quality food and they’re working on the same fields as did our enslaved ancestors. As long as America’s most vulnerable find themselves caught in the crosswinds of unscrupulous payday lending practices, high rents, the cash bail system and unjust social policies that protect the interest of the state, the one percenters who control 80% of the country’s wealth, no person of means escapes such a system with clean hands. God stands with the poor, not the powerful and mighty. Jesus didn’t come to make people rich. To the contrary, he challenges those who were to give it away in obedience to God’s call. It follows then that the one who clings to wealth is closed off from the prophet’s call.

And so the question before all of us today is when God saves us, cleanses us from within, what will we do with the blood on our hands? Born into sin and shaped in iniquity is to know that we all have bloodstained hands. Every coffee bean we can’t trace, every shirt we didn’t sew. Every banana we bless, every roof shingle we didn’t tack down, every pothole that’s filled, every piece of garbage taken from your home, every call you make from a foreign phone, is to know blood on your hands. We profit from poor people who don’t profit. Zacchaeus was a part of a moneymaking machine that taxed the kind of people who do thankless work. Everything about Zacchaeus suggests corruption, but he was righteous in his deed in giving to the poor. But lest we sympathize too much with Zacchaeus and innocently celebrate his spiritual transformation, believers in Christ must come to this text with tears in their eyes. I wanna celebrate with you that Jesus has a place in heaven for you. But I want to remind you that Jesus has a justice agenda, a work in the world for you. I’m not always sure that this is translated so well.

If your faith bears no fruit and your shoulders bear no obligation to God’s world, it is effectively dead faith in a world of compassion fatigue. Let’s not be too hard on Zacchaeus, he promised to pay four times as much. Not only this Jesus finds worth in him. There’s a line in Cole Arthur Riley’s prayer book, Black Liturgies, and it reads, “Remind us that our dignity does not wane or bud in relation to anyone’s belief in it, including our own”.

Zacchaeus is a saint. When the story is juxtaposed with the parable of Lazarus, the rich man, and the story of the rich young ruler, for they at the expense of the poor and fear of poverty, revealed that neither was predisposed or persuaded enough to abandon their possessions to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus’ story is a useful picture for understanding what having wealth implies in the realm of faith. Zacchaeus is found rightly disposed of heart and rightness of heart means remaining open to the prophet’s voice, which calls us from our hiding places, meets us in our curiosity and restores our human dignity in the face of social rejection. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house and for the onlookers, Jesus provides one explanation. He too is a son of Abraham. Palestinians in Gaza. They too are children of Abraham. He’s one of us. He’s at home with the people of God. He’s included within the community of salvation. The hospitality of God meets sinners, even the most culturally despised, at the intersection of their obedience, discipleship and trust. Christ not only forgives us, Christ changes us. Christ transforms not only our inner selves, but our external behavior. And this is why it’s not enough to be Almost Christian, saved and happy with ourselves because of the good we do. We must be Christian. And to be Christian is to follow after Jesus, take up our crosses, settle our debts, and live what we preach.


The Rev. Dr. Kenyatta R. Gilbert