Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

Bold Blessings

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17; Psalm 121

How much risk are you willing to assume? This is the question financial advisers always ask, to help you make investment and pension decisions. Do you want to invest in nice, safe investments with low risk and even lower returns? Or high-risk stocks that which can make your rich or ruin you?

Of course money isn’t the only thing we risk in daily life. We take our lives in our hands walking across the street, driving in a car, or flying in an airplane. When we fall in love, we take a chance that the object of our desire won’t return our love, and we risk a broken heart.

Life is full of risk. So despite the fear that risk-taking causes, we usually forges ahead—like the old expression, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Living without risk is not really living.

Although new risks like nuclear power and global warming make modern life seem overwhelmingly dangerous, life has always been full of risk. Both of the stories we have heard today are about taking risks so that we can receive and give blessings.

God’s call to Abram was dramatic and bold: “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house, for a country which I will show you.” The three-fold repetition emphasizes what an important move this is for Abram.

Go from your country: It takes a lot of courage to pack up and move to a foreign country, particularly on the basis of God’s call. You’ve got to doubt your hearing—is this really what I’m supposed to do? “Are you sure, God? You said what??”

In the ancient world, going off on your own was much more dangerous than it is today. There were no social service agencies or police to help you, embassies to check in with, or ways to be evacuated like we’ve seen on the news lately. Abram and Sarai probably had to learn a new language, and how to survive in a strange land.

Go from your kindred: Abram must leave his extended family, but it’s not only the joy and comfort of living near relatives that he is giving up. Families and kin provided a means of making a living as well as support in the ancient world.

Go from your father’s house: Abram, as elder son, would have been expected to stay home and care for his aging parents.
To leave before his father’s last illness, death and blessing would have been unheard of. Abram leaves with his integrity intact because his parents have already died.

And there’s one thing more—did you notice Abram’s age when he left? 75! Imagine moving to a new country and learning a new language at that age. Abram and Sarai left comfort, familiarity and security behind because God said “Go!”—not for a promise of riches or even a better life, but because God promised to bless them with descendants. Not only that, the whole world would be blessed through them.

Today’s gospel reading is also about blessing and risk. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus in the secrecy of night to check him out.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been somewhat rigid and focused on strict adherence to rules. That’s how his particular group of lay leaders attempted to make sense of the chaotic world they lived in. As a prominent leader in the Jewish community, in territory occupied by the Romans, he was probably afraid to be seen with Jesus the rabble-rouser. Or at least, that is how the author of the gospel of John tells the story.

We know that this gospel was written down well after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Judaism was trying to redefine itself, in the absence of the Temple system. Christianity was also trying to define itself, to discover whether it was a Jewish renewal movement, or a whole new religion. It was common for Christians to worship together separately, but still participate in the synagogue as Jews. But eventually, they had to choose—and Christians were forced out of the synagogue, giving up family, friends and business contacts.

In their talk, Nicodemus focuses on Jesus’ miracles, the signs and healings that to him spell divinity. But Jesus’ grace is not so much turning water into wine and other signs, although they are important, but the gift of sacrificial love. Jesus poured himself out for all, not just a few. Through Jesus, God reached out to embrace and bless the whole world:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. John 3:16.

The famous John 3:16! You may have seen the citation displayed at sports games and on license plates and bumper stickers. It’s probably the most quoted Bible verse in the New Testament.

I like the version of it found in The Message:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

John 3:17, in the New Revised Standard Version, tells us that God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but to save it. Yet John 3:16 is commonly used in a judging, condemning way by some. If people don’t believe in Jesus in just the same way that these people do, then they are considered “unsaved,” and condemned to hell.

But love, to me, is clearly the focus of the sentence. “For God so loved the world!”… God did not want to condemn the world, but to save it! God is clearly the actor here; yet the usual interpretation is focused on something that WE have to do to be saved.

That interpretation perhaps comes from Jesus’ remark, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” The word translated “again” can also mean “from above.”

Whichever way you translate it, I don’t think Jesus meant to focus on our acts or a rigid set of beliefs. He describes being born of the Spirit, which like the wind blows where and how it chooses. There is nothing rigid or prescribed about it.

Just like the wind that rushes here and there, the Holy Spirit sweeps through our lives, bringing fresh air, new perspectives, and change. God always finds new ways to bless us, and calls us in new and challenging ways for us to be a blessing for the whole world.

Like Nicodemus, we often find ourselves saying, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus doesn’t want to give up his comfort in the law, or his security in his religious practices, or his sense of control, and we don’t either. But God calls.

Jesus asks Nicodemus to open himself up to the transforming and uncontrollable leading of the Spirit; just as God called Abram and Sarai; just as God wants to stretch us and open us to new things. As we are changed and blessed, it is our call to bless others; even, the whole world.

After their talk, Nicodemus disappeared back into the night; we don’t hear of him again until after Jesus’ death, when he helps to bury him. Evidently, what Jesus set in front of him was too frightening. God’s call may seem challenging to us, too.

You may not feel that God or the Universe has ever spoken to you, or perhaps that has occurred. You may have received some special knowledge, or heard significant words from a friend, and put it down to intuition instead of divine communication. Each of us has different experience and a different vocabulary to describe those experiences.

But how ever you may feel about the nature of God and how or even if divine consciousness works in the world, I think two things are crystal clear in scripture. God loves the world and wants to bless it; and God calls all who will listen, to be instruments of that blessing.

There will be speed bumps; perhaps even road blocks—but we can get by them. We may feel inadequate as individuals and as a small church without a lot of money, but God’s strength and comfort is always available to us through the Spirit and through other people. As the Beatles song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

We can step out boldly to be a blessing because we know God is watching over us, just like the mountains mark the horizon, as it says in Psalm 121. Every time you see the foothills and mountains around you in Charlottesville, remember this: God loves you, and will bless the whole world through you; God’s strength surrounds and helps you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Turning Points

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Today we read two very different scriptures, one from the Gospel of John and the other from the Gospel of Matthew, that describe the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus to earth.  If we were to take our image of Jesus solely from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we’d get a picture of Jesus as a divine spark or creative force.   John beautifully celebrates God’s deep Wisdom which spoke the entire universe into existence.  This is Jesus as Word, as light, as power, as beauty; not a human being born of woman, but pure energy that existed from before the beginning of time.

Although John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, there’s not much “fleshy” about this description; instead, we hear about Jesus’ glory, and his grace and truth.

Moving as these words are, they don’t say “Incarnation” to me.  It’s hard to imagine this Jesus soiling his diapers or talking back to Joseph or Mary!

To be fair, there’s not much in Matthew’s verses about Jesus’ growing up, either.  I love the grandeur and beauty of John’s words.  But what strikes me about Matthew’s storytelling is the reality, the “truthiness”[1] if you will, of the political situation in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph found themselves.  Jesus was born into a poor family; Joseph’s income as a tecton or rough carpenter must have barely kept them.  We know that they were poor not only because of Joseph’s occupation, but because when it came time to present a thank-offering to God, they could only afford doves, the cheapest sacrificial animal that could be purchased in the Temple marketplace.

Besides being poor, Jesus was born at a time of crisis—the mad Herod, King of the Jews and pawn of the Roman Empire, was clinging to his throne by murdering his wives, children and other family members right and left.  On his deathbed, worried that the world would not mourn him sufficiently, Herod even left instructions that his heirs were to assemble a large number of famous men and assassinate them, so as to create the proper amount of grief!

Times were tough for the poor in many ways, as they are today.  We enter the story at Mary and Joseph’s point of decision.  An angel has warned Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt to save Jesus’ life from Herod.  How frightening to be refugees in a foreign country, far from home and extended family.  But still, they went, and stayed there until further notice from the angel.  Foiled, Herod reportedly massacres all the boy children around Bethlehem that were about Jesus’ age.

We don’t know if the details of Matthew’s story are factually true or not.  Scholars still debate the actual year of Jesus’ birth.  Some say Herod never murdered the children of Bethlehem; it was the awful fact of murdering his own children that became conflated into the story of the Massacre of the Innocents.  Others say that just because the Jewish historian Josephus did not report it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.  In a time of great violence and oppression, one small slaughter or another often goes unreported or is deliberately whitewashed.  Unfortunately, it still does, even with modern media.

Mary and Joseph’s lives have just been one decision point after another:  starting with Mary’s choice to accept her role as God-bearer:  get married, or break the betrothal contract.  Flee to Egypt, or risk staying in Bethlehem.  Remain in Egypt, or come home.  Go to Judea, or go to Nazareth.

At each turning point they could have chosen to follow their own way or to trust in God speaking through dreams and angels.  Or they could have stayed frozen in fear, trusting only to fate and indecision: deciding by not deciding.   Each time, the turning point takes them forward into the unknown; over and over again, they choose to trust in dreams and visions.  Imagine the courage that must have taken!

The sad but interesting fact is that things haven’t changed so much, on the macro or the micro level, despite the thousands of years in between Jesus’ time and ours.  We still have mad rulers in this world; and forms of Empire oppress their countries and even other cultures.  Families today are caught up in the madness and forced to similar choices.  Latino men often have to choose between staying at home with family and no job, or taking the risk and huge debt required to sneak into the U.S. and work illegally in order to send money back.  Refugees from Zimbabwe and other countries can never go home again, even if family members remain, or they will be killed.  How many working people in the U.S. have to choose between rent and medical care, or senior citizens choosing between food and utility bills!

Even the comfortable are faced with difficult decision points.  Hopefully they will not all be so dire as those faced by refugees or the extremely poor, but it is all part of the human condition to be faced again and again with choosing between the lesser of two evils.  Should I place Mom in a home, where she will feel a loss of dignity, or should I allow her to remain at home and risk her falling and breaking a hip?  Should I allow the doctor to pull the plug?  What if my loved one could have woken up if we’d just waited a month?  It’s so hard!  Life is full of suffering, as the Buddhists say.   Actually, I prefer the Unitarian Universalist hymn which goes, “Life is full of joy and sorrow mixed…”

That’s what I find so marvelous about the Incarnation or “God Con Carne” as I saw in a blog the other day.  God in the flesh.  Jesus as friend and brother.  He knows what we’re going through!  He knows our common plight, because he’s been here.  When he was an infant, his parents made the tough choices for him.  When he grew up, he chose to follow God, even to death on a cross.

God made flesh, God in humankind, however you understand that to be, is no stranger to life and its many hard decisions.  He knows what it’s like to get tangled up in Empire, and to die a painful death.  And yes, Christmas isn’t officially over yet and I’m already talking about Good Friday.    I’m not trying to rain on your parade, just acknowledging that many of our parades have a lot of rain already.

There’s a reason that I always display a cross with my nativity set.  But don’t worry, I don’t believe that Jesus went to the cross as part of some peculiar substitutionary atonement scheme involving blood for sin, or as a result of divine child abuse or anything like that!

To my mind, the incarnation means one thing:  God loves us so much that God came to earth to fully participate in all of human experience, from beginning to end; to show us how to live a God-filled life; to suffer with us and rejoice with us.  Jesus came to take on all of our joy and even our pain; to make risky decisions that got him in trouble, and yes, to die.  Because if he hadn’t died, then what’s the big deal?  How does a partial incarnation prove anything?    Without death on the cross, Jesus would have just been God in a human skin, ready to fly back to heaven the moment things got tough.  But he stuck it out.  He chose to live a fully human life, which always ends in death.

Wherever we find ourselves in body or in mind, God has been there; and God is with us still in spirit.  So remember that, when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  God has been there, and God is with you still.

I’d like to close with two great poems about the Incarnation.  The first is  “The Risk of Birth” by Madeleine L’Engle[2].

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The second is by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest.

THE COMING[3]

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

Amen.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness

[2] The Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation editor- Luci Shaw (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984) 13

[3] “The Coming,” by R.S. Thomas, from “Collected Poems 1945-1990″ Phoenix Press.

Joseph’s Dream

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

This Advent we have begun reading from the gospel of Matthew, and we’ll continue with that text until next Advent, when the rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary moves on to the gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Matthew gives us an interesting way to hear the Christmas story, because it focuses on Joseph more than Mary like the gospel of Luke does.

But we’ll open with Mary, because how can you tell the story of a baby’s birth without a mother?

Now Mary, Joseph’s fiancée, was pregnant by someone else, someone other than Joseph—

Let’s just pause a minute to feel into that.  Imagine Mary’s panic and fearfulness.  She’s been visited by the angel Gabriel, who said the HS is going to “overshadow her,” whatever that means.  The gospel of Luke tells us that she was perplexed, and that she pondered the angel’s message in her heart.

Now, however, push has come to shove and she is actually pregnant while engaged to Joseph.  This is way beyond perplexed!

What about Joseph’s feelings? Joseph no doubt feels hurt, angry, and disappointed.

The poet W.H. Auden pictures Joseph at the bar, listening to all the chatter around and to him as people digest the news:

“Joseph, have you hear what Mary said occurred?

Yes, it may be so.  Is it likely? No.

Mary may be pure, but Joseph, are you sure?

How is one to tell?

Suppose, for instance, well,

Maybe, maybe not.  But Joseph, you know what

Your world will say about you anyway.[1]

Joseph’s hurt and anger and puzzlement must have been extensive.  But at least he isn’t facing the public disgrace and punishment that Mary might have to endure.   The Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures reads: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.  So shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Dt. 22:23-24).

The reason for this draconian law was because in a land based, patriarchal culture, the inheritance of the first-born son was the bedrock of society.  It determined land transfer, and the carrying on of the family line and name.

Even though public stoning was infrequent by the time of Jesus, it was still a very serious business to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Being engaged was a type of arranged marriage; a legally binding contract.   That is why some versions of this story read that Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly, perhaps send her away to have her baby.  Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and his response to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy is certainly righteous within the range of awful possibilities in the ancient world.

Having made his plan for a quiet divorce or dismissal, Joseph goes to sleep and dreams, and everything changes!  Have you ever seen the Georges de La Tour painting, The Angel Appears to St. Joseph in a Dream[2]?

Joseph is shown as old, bald and white bearded.  He’s fallen asleep at the table, his cheek resting against his propped up hand, his mouth agape.  You can just imagine his snores.  A young woman stands by the table, in shadow, her arms upraised, gesturing.  The glowing candle illuminates Joseph dimly, but the face of the young woman glows, as does the edge of her gesturing hand.

This is the message of the angel: Mary has not been unfaithful to you!  The baby was conceived, not by another man, but by the power of God through the Holy Spirit.  This special baby is to be named Jesus, or Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves,” because Jesus will save his people from their sins.

Joseph awakes, and his life is never the same.  Like Mary, he says “yes” to God’s new plan for his life.  He agrees to take Mary as his wife, and parent this special baby who is not of his seed.  He doesn’t worry about his wounded pride, or what the villagers are going to say behind his back.

Not only does he want to save Mary from disgrace, Joseph gives up his cultural right to father a son to carry on his name and property.

You have probably noticed I’ve written this sermon as if I believe in the virgin birth.  That is probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks of faith to logical people.

I don’t know where we have got the image of Joseph as an old man.  I suppose it arose since Joseph doesn’t appear in the Bible after the day Jesus is found amongst the Temple teachers, during Passover.  I’m just speculating that they assumed Joseph had died by the time Jesus grew up.

Perhaps the legend started in a very interesting ancient document from Egypt, written in Coptic around the 5th century, called The History of Joseph the Carpenter[3]. This text proclaims that Joseph had four sons (Judas, Justus, James, and Simon) and two daughters (Assia and Lydia) by a previous marriage. At age 90, after the death of his first wife, Joseph is given charge of the twelve year old virgin Mary. She lives in his household raising his youngest son James ‘the less’ along with Judas, until the time she is to be married at age 14½.  Joseph then dreams his dream, and takes Mary as wife in accordance with the angel’s direction, and the Christmas story continues as we know it.

De La Tour also painted a charming picture of Jesus watching Joseph working in the woodshop, called St. Joseph the Carpenter[4].  It depicts old-man Joseph bending over, using a cross-shaped auger.  A very young Jesus holds the candle and watches, enthralled. The candle lights up Jesus’ face, and glows through the flesh of his fingers, indicating his divinity.

This tender picture of Jesus’ upbringing by an older father continues in The History of Joseph the Carpenter. Joseph, Mary, Jesus and his half-siblings live together in peace as a family until, at the age of 111, still in incredible health and youthful appearance, Joseph dies with Jesus at his bedside, while Jesus is still a young man.

A pretty picture, but highly unlikely.  At least Joseph’s appearance at his death anyway.  But Joseph must have been a good man, as shown in his response to Mary’s situation and in his raising of Jesus.  Jesus felt a deep connection to the God he called Father and Abba, Daddy.  God was mainly referred to in male terms in those days, but not usually as Abba.   I like to think that means Joseph was a good Dad, but that’s pure speculation, of course.

But his imagined parenting skills, and willingness to help Mary are not the main reasons I’m lifting up Joseph today.   What is striking to me was his decision to listen to the angel’s voice rather than follow the law.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a righteous man is one who follows the law.     According to the law, Joseph should have divorced Mary.  But Joseph realized that it is more important to listen to God than to follow rules about God and God’s people.   There are many good things about the law—the 10 commandments are excellent rules for living successfully in community—but the law only goes so far.

I believe that thanks to Mary and Joseph, Jesus grew up knowing that the law is important, but that living in God’s presence is even more important.   I think they taught Jesus that listening for God, discovering God’s plan, and then choosing it over your own expectations and you own cultural assumptions, is what true righteousness is all about.

Joseph’s dream is important for us, too.  So much of Protestant religion is about God and theology —we read about God in the Bible and in books of theology, we recite written prayers, give away money, it’s all very wordy and sensible and rational.   There’s not much dreaming or seeing visions or seeking the spark of God’s living presence.  Because having a dream and acting on it is very scary!

Another related modern trait in Westerners is self-reliance.  We like to make “rational” decisions in our lives based on our intellects and education, not on dreams or a nudge in the heart, or on an experience of basking in the presence of the holy.  Some of you may have been raised as I was, to just to handle things myself, and never ask for help.

Joseph wrestled with his problem, but then listened for what God had to say about it through the angel.  Our God is a God of new beginnings, who is still speaking after all these years.  We often want to put a period, an end to something, but God wants to add a comma because she’s got lots more to say and do.  The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and wrought vast changes in her life, because God is all about change and growth and new potentials.  God changed Joseph’s plan, and probably has something to say about ours, too!

We may not see angels in our dreams, or at our bedside, but I think God sends angels our way all the time.  They just don’t look like what we imagine they do.  God speaks to us through other people that we know, and through strangers, and in our hearts and dreams.  We just need to attune ourselves to God so that we can hear God’s messages!  I have no doubt that God will speak to Sojourners, too, with a dream to carry you into the next ten years.  What will your response be?  Amen.


[1] http://witheology.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/poetic-annunciation/

[2] http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/la_tour_georges_de.html

[3]http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_Joseph_the_Carpenter

[4] http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/la_tour_georges_de.html

Transforming Love

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Today we meet one more “outcast” before we finish our journey in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is almost to Jerusalem, and we’ll soon be moving on to the gospel of Matthew on November 28, when Advent begins.

Luke loves to tell stories of outcasts, the marginalized people rejected by society yet welcomed and affirmed by Jesus. The extravagant welcome of all that we in the United Church of Christ are fond of was definitely practiced by Jesus, and we see that very clearly in the gospel of Luke.

The outcast we meet today is Zacchaeus of Jericho, a rich man, normally the type of person feted by ancient society. His name actually means “innocent!” But he is far from innocent in the eyes of the people. His wealth comes from his job as chief tax collector. His title might as well read Chief Crook and Traitor. As an instrument of Roman oppression, the other Jews would have despised him. Every penny he earned came from their pockets, and whether he actively defrauded them or not, that would have been their assumption.

The Bible tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man. But we don’t know why Zacchaeus was so drawn to Jesus that he embarrassed himself by running and climbing a tree like a child, just to see him. No doubt he had heard some gossip about Jesus. There were all sorts of stories going around the grapevine—many hoped he was a revolutionary, gathering support to take on the Romans in armed conflict. Others saw him as a charismatic rabbi and leader of a Jewish renewal movement.

On Jesus’ and his disciples’ long walk to Jerusalem, each of the people he meets and stories he tells, reveals a little more about his nature. He heals people with leprosy, and restores the sight of blind men. He tells stories of dinner etiquette, the welcoming of children, justice, and money management. Often, he tells the disciples he is going to Jerusalem to die, and to rise again—but who can understand that? Only Peter begins to suspect that Jesus is divine.

When Jesus looked up, and Zacchaeus looked down, what did they see in each other’s eyes? Did Zacchaeus feel that he was in the presence of holiness? Did Jesus?

Some believe Zacchaeus was converted to righteousness earlier, and that is why he went to such lengths to see Jesus. The look they exchanged was just the icing on the cake. On the other hand, some prefer to think that Zacchaeus was instantly converted by this encounter, and that from that moment onward he knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

In that look, I believe that Jesus saw the depth of Zacchaeus’ feelings of pain and rejection. Perhaps he also saw all Zacchaeus’ grasping, cheating and thieving, and loved him deeply anyway… Radical acceptance. …Radical grace. Transforming love!

As if the look wasn’t enough, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. A simple thing, you might say—but remember that throughout the New Testament, dinner is very important. It is not only daily sustenance, in a culture of scarcity and hunger, but in the story-telling language of the Bible, also a place to meet God. Jesus fed multitudes on a small amount of bread and fish, and we learned that it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Jesus frequently ate with tax collectors and sinners, to demonstrate that God’s love is available to all who seek.

In the ancient world, and in land-based cultures still today, hospitality is everything. It would have been expected that a rich man would entertain a traveling rabbi, and offer him hospitality in the form of a dinner invitation. Zacchaeus was obviously not thinking along these lines, since he concealed himself in the top of the tree. Perhaps that’s why he did it! Maybe he thought if he stood around, people would notice he wasn’t springing for dinner!

As usual, Jesus turns the tables and does the unexpected. He invites himself to dinner, and to the house of the most despised person in town, no less. And Zacchaeus is transformed! He excitedly begins to give away half of his belongings, and says, “If I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much!” Four times is a stunning amount, way more than Jewish law required. What are we to make of this sudden change?

We modern folk find quick conversions suspicious, whether in movies, literature or real life. They cause us to grumble and sneer much like the crowd who grumbled to hear of Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house.

Mainline Protestants in general and Sojourners in particular, worship in a mostly intellectual way—the reading of prayers is honored above incense and holy water; sermons are expected to challenge thinking rather than exhort to faith; and the faith journey with its ebbs and flows is celebrated more than some final moment of truth. Generally, Protestants appreciate thinking more than feeling. And this can be an obstacle to church growth. Studies show that younger generations appreciate not having to check their intellects at the door, but they want much more than that. They want an experience of God, something that the WW II and Boomer generations haven’t been looking for as much.

The story of Zacchaeus challenges the intellectual approach to faith. I think that in that one look exchanged with Jesus, Zacchaeus fell in love with God. This kind of faith is what’s been described as a “song in the heart.” An experience of God like this doesn’t mean that he never had another bad day, or that doubts never entered his mind, or that he never sinned again. But it does mean, I believe, that his eyes of faith were opened, and he was given the ability to see the healing, love, joy and beauty all around him. For the first time, he was able to see money as merely a possession to share rather than an obsession to hoard. He was able to both give and receive love. Cheating and grasping ceased to be a way of life for him. This, I believe, is what salvation means.

Salvation does not mean that “If you believe X, you will go to heaven and not hell when you die.” No. Salvation, I believe, is wholeness and healing. Salvation begins in this life, when an encounter with God makes you feel renewed and released from the heaviness of your burdens. Once you let God in, nothing else can knock you off your feet for long. Everything else—money, possessions, what you do for a living, sickness, even the death of a loved one, as painful as that is—falls into perspective. As Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher once wrote, “All the goods of this world…are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire that perpetually burns within us for an infinite and perfect good.” 1

That “infinite and perfect good” is our gift, our wholeness, our salvation, from God. It is offered to all—to some it comes in a moment, to others as part of a long journey; a perceptive few (the saints!) recognize it in themselves
from the beginning. But we can all experience it. It is a wholeness, a healing, and goodness that calls forth a response from us. To quote another 20th century philosopher, the African American Episcopal lay woman Verna Dozier, “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?” 2     Amen.

1 As cited in Huey, Kate, Weekly Seeds Reflection, October 25-31, 2010, www.ucc.org.
2 Ibid.