You may have noticed that for a few Sundays now I’ve changed the title of the “Sermon” to “Sacrament of Word.” The reason for that change has to do with being clear about what it is I do here at this time.
What I am doing, at least for now is a sermon in the old definition of the delivery of a exposition or exhortation. But I also aim to be sacramental. In fact, I don’t aim to be “sermonic” at all — but, by speaking, to open up your own yearnings to a deeper self-awareness, or to a deeper self-examination. My hope in every “sermon” that I preach is that you might catch a glimpse of something holy — not because I am, but because here, as no where else, these matters are opened probed. That’s what I mean by Sacrament of Word. Something happens within your space that I could not have predicted, and perhaps you could not have either. And that something, at least for the moment had you saying “aha”.
I mention this today because I want to talk about “salvation.” Not the kind of salvation we’re used to hearing about — the kind that invites you to paradise on the one hand but squeezes your shoes on the other in order vto keep you inline. I want to talk about salvation as that which names your deepest yearning. I’m not going to name that for you — that’s your work. The whole point of a sermon is to experience something, even fleeting, of an awareness of our deepest yearning being met by God — of being sacramental.
Zacchaeus is an interesting character for us to consider as we do this work.
One the one hand, Zacchaeus’ name in Hebrew means “pure” or “righteous,” — yet his name in public was anything but. Perhaps Z, before we do anything else at all with him or his story opens up territory that is fertile for a sacramental encounter. It is impossible to yearn for something that is entirely absent from our experience. Z yearns for something deeper, something universally freeing — because to be human at all is to know something of purity and righteousness — capable of sacrament.
It is necessary to say more about Z’s public figure in order to make this punchline of this story all the more pointed.
Zacchaeus belonged to a despised group of Jewish citizens who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people, and who were notorious for extortion, greed and deceit. He was, in fact, a “chief tax collector,” one who employed tax collectors under him to collect revenues throughout his district. The position brought him great wealth, but it had also cost him the respect and affection of his neighbors. He was despised by his fellow Jews.
New Testament scholar Fred Craddock says that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector is entangled in a:
corrupt system [where] the loftier one’s position, the greater one’s complicity in that system. While nothing of the private life of Zacchaeus is revealed in the story, this much we know on principle: no one can be privately righteous while participating in and profiting from a program that robs and crushes other persons.
Zacchaeus was short, wealthy and hated. But he was also human — and as human experienced the same yearnings that all of us have had at one point or another for something deeper, something more universally profound, than the common run of life. And having heard that Jesus was coming to town, he desired to see him. Why?
Somewhere, somehow, Z had run into some people who had talked about their experiences with Jesus that made him to think that Jesus might treat him differently . . . that led him to believe that Jesus was himself in touch with the story of grace for which he so fervently longed . . . that by dining with him, perhaps that longing might be met . . . that Jesus might recognize Zacchaeus as a person capable of love, and not a despicable tax collector just out to make a dinar. Perhaps Jesus would recognize his eponymous purity and righteousness and set him free.
It is certainly a fascinating encounter. Jesus, walking along, mobbed by townspeople, suddenly stops and looks up into this tree where the wealthy little citizen has positioned himself. Did Jesus know he would find Zacchaeus in the tree that day? How did he know to call him by name? Had he heard of him? Was he aware of his occupation and reputation? Had others in the crowd already spotted the tax collector in the tree and begun to hiss?
Either way, Jesus calls out to him, saying, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” The Greek word is translated “immediately,” or “make haste” or “hurry” – this is an urgent request. He is not content to make an appointment for later. Now is the time.
The move from death to life, the need to meet the yearning for depth and integrity, is not something that is accomplished once and then hung up like a trophy on the wall. It is like a rain shower in the desert. To put off the moment is to miss the whole point. Z scrambles down from his perch for a divine, sacramental, encounter.
The word salvation, in our bible, takes its cue from our passage today from Exodus. In the bible, salvation is not about what the popular imagination today represents it to be — it is not about afterlife, it is not about who’s in and who’s out, it’s not about following rules or being moral — it is about release from bondage.
There are of course all types of bondage — in Egypt, the issues were economic, political and religious. The Hebrew people were not only slaves, and so limited in their economic and political freedom, they were also beaten for any attempt to worship God and forced to worship the Pharaoh.
The moment of our reading is the moment in Israel’s history that defines their understanding of God’s activity on their behalf — it is rescue from trouble — not little trouble — but the kind of trouble that can define you — the kind of trouble that lead Zacchaeus to say about himself: “I am despised and worthless” and to ask: “what would he have to do with me?”
Later, during the Babylonian exile, salvation became the naming of God’s continued presence and so of return from exile. And in the psalms David uses the word to describe his sense of God’s rescue from peril, which I suppose as a young shepherd and an heir apparent to the throne and eventual king, a condition with which he was too well familiar.
In the New Testament, Salvation took similar forms — Salvation was the movement from death to new life. The key idea here being that almost enigmatic phrase of Jesus’ “Let the dead bury the dead.” Meaning that as dead, you have two options — you can either carry on as dead or you can move past it. Jesus’s story is replete with instances of movement from death to life, from blindness to seeing, from infirmity to wellness. And just as in his “let the dead burying the dead” does not obviously speak of the literally dead, but of the living breathing dead, so these stories should be understand as that movement, in so many different ways, for so many different people from a conditions, of death to life.
With all of this said — perhaps it seems that at least one part of the cultural definition of salvation is correct — that it is a personal thing — that it is only about God and me.
But the broad sense of the word salvation is political — political in the classic sense of the word meaning the forum in which the question “What should the humanly created world look like?” “How shall we work together to bring a good vision of human life to fruition.” The question has become divisive of late because people have different ideas about that vision and those ideas have become off-limits to real conversation and because we live in such a complex society that ideas have policy implications which have very complicated ramifications.
I say all of this because I want to be clear — there is a difference between the idea of salvation as the representation of what a humanly created world should look like and how that vision can implemented in the real world.
Differences, for example over the recently upheld Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act, are real and some of those differences based on serious policy complications. And if, in fact, those differences are such that it creates a new underclass, or that it does nothing to help those of our community who find their lives in the limbo because a basic human right, healthcare, is denied them, then these differences should lead to a revised law.
A study published last week by the Kaiser Foundation, however, finds that the adult uninsured population of southern states would be cut in half.
Overall, the Medicaid expansion is expected to result in a decrease in the number of uninsured of 11.2 million people, of 45 percent of the uninsured adults below 133 percent of poverty. States with low coverage levels and higher uninsured rates will see larger reductions(Alabama 53.2 percent and Texas 49.4). […](Source).
Why did Jesus invite himself to dinner in Zacchaeus’ home?
It can’t be simply that he was hungry. And it can’t simply be that Zacchaeus was the only outcast in the crowd. Jesus announces that “Salvation has come to this house” when his inner yearning to transcend the common run of his life and move from death to life is met with a fresh commitment to transcend the injustices of the system upon which his livelihood depends. Zacchaeus’ deepest yearning is not separate from his job — but to deal in it, honestly with people, to do his part to move the system from injustice to justice. That Jesus names salvation.
I believe that our deepest yearning to be free of the common run of life can only be met as we seek not only for our own freedom, but for the freedom of others.