Struggling With Our Conscience
"Today salvation has come to this house."
Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house – because Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham. I don’t know about you – but that cause and effect doesn’t make much sense to me right off the bat. And as someone who would really like hear the voice of God whisper in my ear – today salvation has come to this house – the lack of a clear connection irks me.
Maybe that is selfish – wanting such divine acknowledgment that everything is good. But I’ve been reading this week that assurance is something a whole lot of us are longing for. Perhaps you too have come across the news item somewhere in your perusing that our collective anxiety this election season is at an all-time high. The American Psychological Association reports that upwards of 52% of all Americans are coping with high levels of stress brought on by this election. Therapists report that the issues that have emerged of late – national security, secrecy, terrorism, hacking threats, gun rights and sexual assault – trigger our deepest fears and anxieties. We’re all worried.
I imagine that my being in this pulpit and even referencing the election has some of you worried – uh oh – I do not want to hear a political sermon this morning.
Guess what – I don’t want to preach one. I want to know that today salvation has come to this house.
We need to see and know salvation in the midst of our own and our collective anxieties around the fast approaching date of November eighth – because this is where you and I live. We live in a real world – with real challenges and problems – and real possibilities, real hope. And there is something we are supposed to see in our time and place that points us to the reality of God here and now. And points us to the reality of God on November 9th and beyond.
Our story begins with the phrase – Jesus entered Jericho. Just a few sentences prior to that – Luke’s gospel reads – As Jesus approached Jericho. And as he did a blind beggar was sitting by the road, begging. The beggar hears the crowd – senses the commotion and asks what’s going on. Someone tells him – Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. So he shouts out – Jesus, Son of David – have mercy on me. The crowd tells him to be quiet – but he gets louder and shouts again. Jesus stops – it reads he stood still – and then orders the man be brought to him.
Jesus asks the beggar – what do you want me to do for you? Lord, let me see again. Done. Receive your sight, your faith has saved you. And all the people – when they saw it – praised God. (Lk 18:35ff)
The beggar is blind. Yet he already possesses the ability to perceive the power of God’s mercy in his life. All the people around him who can see – are unaware of God’s immediate presence until Jesus proves it – with this miraculous healing. The beggar trusts before he can see. The people don’t trust until they’ve seen some proof. Where is your faith – where is our faith – on that spectrum?
Then – Jesus enters Jericho – and again we meet someone who cannot see. Well, Zacchaeus can see – he’s just a little vertically challenged. But just like the shouting beggar – he isn’t going to let a challenge stop him. And like the shouting beggar – he isn’t bothered, nor does he seem to care, what others think of him. Zacchaeus isn’t just a tax collector – he is a chief tax collector – he is a wealthy man, a feared man. He is not the sort of man who would scamper up a tree like a child, just to see a wandering Jewish prophet.
All we can do is imagine the backstory that propels him. Perhaps he stood at the banks of the Jordan way back in chapter 3 – when John the Baptist was declaring repent, repent and prepare the way of the Lord. Because the tax collectors are one of the first in line to get baptized and ask – what are we supposed to do? How do we prepare? And John replies – don’t collect more than you are owed – stop exhorting people.
Perhaps Zacchaeus was there and heard that – and it aligned with something inside him. Perhaps his conscious was already struggling with the accepted practices of his colleagues and friends that just didn’t sit right with him. And this invitation was what he needed to hear. To be told that he could turn that struggle into a practice to make a way for God in his life. Then he saw what he could do.
In point of fact our English is a poor translation in this passage – we mess up the tense of the verb. When Zacchaeus meets Jesus he tells him something he is already doing – it is not future tense as in "I will" but present in the sense of "I do and I will continue." Lord, half my possessions I give to the poor, Zacchaeus says. Like the beggar he already saw Jesus as the Son of David – why else would he climb up that tree? He was living his belief and bearing fruit – as John the Baptist had suggested – giving some of his wealth to those who needed it. Maybe that too is why the people grumble. The people grumble that Jesus would acknowledge – let alone go to the house – of a tax collector because they don’t see Zacchaeus. They see the label – a tax collector.
I think the people would rather hate Zacchaeus – then actually see him. It's easier sometimes to hold onto blind assumptions and put people in a categories – then to see a person, the person of Zacchaeus and how he is trying in his way to prepare a way for God in his life.
Do you all remember when Pope Francis visited DC last year? He gave an incredible address to Congress – that I would suggest is worth rereading this week. In it he reminded us of a promise we make or renew at every baptism – “All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for human dignity.” He goes on to define politics as an “expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”
And in his remarks – the pope directly addressed many of the same issues that are causing such anxiety just a year later – however – he encouraged and reminded that the remedy is to “reject a mindset of hostility” and recognize our need to “constantly relate to others.”
When speaking of those who we categorize as refugees or immigrants – people who flee their homes in search of a better life for themselves and their families – the pope said, “we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories…We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays, to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
That is what we see Jesus do this morning – and over the course of his short time on earth. He sees people as people – and not problems or lost causes. And then invites other people to see in that same way. And when that happens – that moment of seeing and being seen – salvation is there.
A colleague of mine was quoted in an article this week saying – I don’t preach political sermons – I preach the gospel of Jesus Christ – which happens to be very political.
This election will come and go – but all the challenges will still be here. It’s good to remember that all the outreach we do as a church is as much about helping others as it is for giving us opportunities to recognize our need to see others, to hear their stories. That is one way in which we see that salvation has come to this house. It is one way we confront the anxieties and challenges of our time. It is how we practice allowing God to transform our hearts – through the human family, as Jesus did – to have our sight renewed.
And do you remember what Pope Francis did after that address? Instead of attending the luncheon with all the politicians and important people – he went to an outreach center – a place much like Our Daily Bread or Paul’s Place – to eat and hear and see.
We hear Jesus say this morning that the Son of Man - Jesus aligns himself with humanity – came to seek and save the lost. We are encouraged in the midst of our anxieties to seek the one who prayed daily, broke bread with strangers and continuously put one foot in front of the other – making his way through Jericho and the next place – seeing and talking to fellow human beings, sharing a meal together and getting to know their story.
And then naming the presence of God that is always there, if only we will see it – that is all it takes for salvation to come to a house – because we too, are children of Abraham and Sarah. We too can choose our words – our works – and our lives to reflect those things that we see as the very real ways of God’s saving grace and abundant love. Amen.