St. Augustine of Hippo

Episcopal Church


“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t;

You will never be a saint to your critics”

(Luke 19:1-10)

November 3, 2019

The Reverend Nathanael Saint-Pierre

Recently, during a vestry retreat at our church, the leader gave us all a form and asked us to circle one of several words that describe ourselves. They were words like assertive, controlling, manipulative, etc. and of course each one of us picked one. Then he turned around and asked the group to pick one word to describe one person among us. What a surprise it was for us to discover that what people perceive of us is often not what we think of ourselves.

Jesus is crossing Jericho and is an established and well-known teacher. People are trying to get a glimpse of who he is and even benefit from his favor. Along the way, many people were healed and made well so more curious people are after him. One of them, a chief tax collector, is so short that he cannot see Jesus. He decides to run ahead and climb a sycamore tree. Then Jesus arrives and tells him to come down; he wants to have dinner with him tonight.

How do you think Jesus’ critics reacted? How do you believe people will react to “the bad” you do? What gratitude do you expect for the good you do?

Being a Christian is not easy. We are judged no matter what we do. It’s damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The margin is thin between right and wrong, good and bad. Today, as we welcome two children for baptism, we need to understand and accept we are not welcoming them into an assembly of perfect people who are perceived the same way we perceive ourselves. Of course, all of us would like to be assertive. But chances are that when other people are looking at you, you’ll be anything else but assertive. Does that matter?

St. Augustine wrote that it takes a sinner to have a saint, and he is right. Jesus didn’t come to rescue those who were already saved, he came so that those who were sick could be made well, those who were enslaved by sin might be made free. Zacchaeus was rich but enslaved by wealth. He needed Christ to grow into a different human being. Jesus knew that having dinner with someone so despised would attract the animosity of his followers, but he cared more about saving one sheep than pleasing the ninety-nine. Jesus was not in the popularity business; he was in the salvation business.

People will always react to your actions depending on their own interest. They will applaud you as long as the outcome of your actions generates a profit for them. It becomes your personal choice to decide whom you want to please: God or people. When Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home, he took the conscious decision to assume his mission. Entering the Christian church and becoming a member is to take a lifelong commitment to stand against oppressive forces, no matter their shape or form. It is not a one-day dip in water to become holy forever. Baptism is to put us apart, to be enrolled in the army fighting evil. Sometimes, friendship is oppressive, love can be oppressive, your environment can be oppressive. It is important for us to learn that our ultimate judge is not a prosecutor, but a redeemer: Jesus. Very few of us are actually out in the community bringing Christ to life in the hearts of the everyday people. Instead, we are inside, judging so much, that the ones, audacious enough to enter the doors, are not transformed by hope the same way Zacchaeus was. We use scripture as a tool for oppression instead of as a means for liberation and redemption.

Zacchaeus was wealthy but was seeking for something money couldn’t buy, such as acceptance, appreciation, respect, even love. Like many wealthy people that you and I know, he must have felt lonely, maybe valued only because of the money he had. He heard about Jesus, a fair teacher who was open to being with sinners, one who claimed he could take away the sins of the world, a rabbi who was critical of the Pharisees and those who were enforcers of the law. Against all hope, Zacchaeus dreamed that this man might be the one to redeem him. Jesus would not apply the prescription of the law to him: “You shall not steal.” Jesus is not like the judge in our judicial system. Sentencing, for Jesus, was never about punishment; it was about second chances. It was about restoration and redemption. That is the good news to share with all. That is the definition of evangelism. Redemption is worth celebrating.

If I give you a form and ask you to pick one word between two to describe yourself: saint or sinner, whichever you circle is a good answer. We are all sinners and all saints. We are all sinners because we are enslaved by sin. We all would like to be rich if being rich is a problem. Being rich is a nice problem to have. We would find it difficult to decide between sleeping in Mar-a-Lago or in World tower. We would have the problem to choose between Air Force I or Trump Air. But we are also all saints because we have been chosen to follow Jesus; our problem becomes to live as he did. We are set apart to be the reason Christ died for. The way we live, the way we die, all that we do will be a matter for those who want to judge. It is we who must decide to lift people or to bring them down. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.” I pray that you seek to please God first for whom you are special, no matter rich or poor, sinner or saint. Amen.