The first thing that stands out for many people and did for me when I read this gospel story is the suddenness … Who would up and leave their life for a wandering passer-by?
As usual the gospels are thin on detail that is not relevant to their message… so they don’t explain, they don’t tell us whether the fishermen had heard of Jesus, or met him before, or discussed his teaching. We just don’t know.
I suspect the reason is simple… we don’t need to know. That’s not the point. The point is not the abruptness of the change as the nature of the change.
Today as a new year is beginning we come up against this word ‘vocation’ again.
For fishermen on the beach fishing is a search – a search for food, a search for fish to provide an income, a ‘living’ as we call it. The change is that it becomes search for people… people to what end … people with whom to share and enjoy the reign of God. Think about that for a moment. I will make you ‘fishers of men’ = I will set you on a search to find people with whom to share and enjoy the reign of God [pause]
In fact that is what happened to these disciples… this sudden change of direction on the beach that day became not just a moment of madness, but a vocation that determined the shape of their whole lives. For whatever reason (the story does not say) they ended up following a call to find people with whom to share the reign of God as Jesus was introducing it to them.
In our family it’s course selection time. Difficult decisions press in on my daughters. At a young age they are forced to think about the future about jobs, careers, and vocation. It starts with which subjects to take. The common dilemma is between what really interests them and what might earn them a living. How to keep your options open when you’re still young and so on. But at some point, I believe it comes down to a more basic question, a question that many young people just don’t know the answer to. ‘What do you believe in? What matters to you?’ Not what titillates your interest, or what will bring you success, or even what are you best at? It’s the question of vocation.
The most important question is not how to find a way of a way of earning a living… a way of sustaining, providing what’s necessary for something else called ‘living’ that you can then do because you have a job. That’s important, but it’s not so important. Not as important as ‘vocation’. Vocation is about what your ‘living’ is, what it means for you to be truly alive, what God is making of your living – of the project that your life is.
Recent research on ‘vocation’ among ministers and church goers found (H/T David Lose), unsurprisingly that preachers spoke about their “vocation” a lot. However, at the same time they found that people in the pews tended to say that they didn’t feel ‘called’. Perhaps they looked at people like me, ministers, as being ‘called’. But they didn’t think of their lives in vocational terms… their job was, apparently, just a job, not really significant before God and in the bigger scheme of things.
I think that’s sad for their job… but it’s also sad that they have tied their sense of ‘vocation’ and calling to a job – something they get paid to do by an institution whose fundamental purpose is to make money, whatever else it does.
The disciples did not leave fishing for another job. They left fishing for something much more than a job. They left fishing to embark on a search, a lifelong search to find people with whom to share the reign of God… in other words to find people with whom to share and live the life of Jesus Christ.
“Fishers of people” includes jobs but it’s bigger than jobs… it’s a metaphor for a relational life that is being learnt in the presence of Jesus.
What does this mean for us? To be more precise what does it mean to be taught this relational life from Jesus? How does it connect with some of the challenges we face.
Jesus started his ministry as a disciple of John. He was baptized by John and begins his ministry under the same slogan – “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. But as it turns out Jesus’ take on the kingdom of heaven is very different … so much so that John gets confused and starts sending him messages questioning the direction he is taking. Jesus has turned the kingdom of God on its head – for John it is a threat, for Jesus it is Good News. For John the reign of God is the revenge of God and only the righteous converts have a chance of entering. For Jesus the reign of God is “the year of the Lord’s favour”, it is good news for the oppressed, liberation for those in bondage, healing and wholeness.
For John the reign of God is close … close in the form of an immediate threat, but not yet present. For Jesus it is both close at hand and indeed present already, in his own ministry.
It’s not like there is no judgment in Jesus ministry, there is still an end of the world in the background. For both of them things are going wrong in the world, there is ruin and devastation to be addressed. Neither man has their head in the sand.
For John God will sort it out in vengeance. For Jesus God is already present sorting it out in grace, engaging the world from the bottom up.
And that’s the key difference. John the Baptist has a violent God… ultimately he anticipates the idea that only violence will redeem… the myth of so many stories and movies, the myth of redemptive violence – a cowboy with a gun wears the white hat. Jesus acknowledges the violence of the world… more so as his own death becomes inevitable… but he acknowledges it in the context of a gracious God – Abba Father who freely gives and who addresses violence with love.
What strike me is that in different ways we too live with the end of the world in the background– we understand what Ernst Kasemann called ‘the mood of world ruin’. This week an Oxfam report declared that now 85 people have same amount of wealth as 50% of the world’s population. 85 people (who could all fit in a double-decker bus) have that much control over the rest of the world, that much privilege… in the face of continuing extreme poverty, for so many of that 50%. You have to wonder where our current economic system is leading us. What is the endpoint of this process, this philosophy?
This month we have been exercised as a community to think about our future. Do we care that the vast majority of scientists have concluded that runaway global warming is an imminent danger and that we may very soon have released enough carbon from fossil fuels to pass the 2 degree threshold? That even if we don’t find any more oil to burn at all and simply use our current stockpile we will be well on track for disaster? And if we don’t care, what does that say about our faith and our theology? In the context of this scientific situation we are asking ourselves, as a community in Dunedin, whether we will cooperate with Anadarko and be lured by the prospect of the wealth it might bring us. This is not a party-political bandwagon. This is simply the question that science puts to us (on the one hand) and the gospel puts to us (on the other).
Like John the Baptist and Jesus we too know something of the mood of world ruin.
As Christians we take Jesus’ side on this matter. God will finally sort these matters out. But God is present now (and not in vengeance). And in the presence of Jesus, God is setting people free, liberating them now. And those who fish for people are on the look out for those with whom to share the reign of God now. This is our good news and our vocation.
We are still with John the Baptist. It’s not Christmas yet (all that shopping and caroling and tinsel you have been wading through all week is just an illusion). In fact it seems even further away from Christmas time than last week in our readings. John the Baptist, who last week was preaching the judgement of God is this week in prison, sitting with his head in his hands in a dark and musty cell
Finally he gets to see one of his followers… and at this point we learn that he has one burning question on his mind. It’s as if, as one writer puts it, his problems are not so much his chains as his misgivings.
Did he spend his life in vain, was it all a waste of time. Most of all was he wrong about Jesus his comrade in arms.
John is at a low point, bowed down with doubt and disappointment. Yes, disappointment with God. Perhaps you know what this is like – disappointed about what was meant to have happened in your family or in your church or in your career?
John predicted and promised thousands a kingdom, in which the judgement of God would bring in a new age. And it hasn’t happened. He expected the world to change.
Perhaps it is an opportunity for us to think back on our expectations of the world in earlier days. What do you think about at Christmas time when you hear the promises of ‘peace on earth and goodwill among all’? Do you even have time to reflect… and understand something of John’s disappointment?
John had also put a lot of hope in his fellow prophet, Jesus.
So the first thing he does when he gets to see someone is to send that person with a question to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”
Some days later… their postal system was much like ours… the message comes back “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news” And I suspect this didn’t cheer John up all that much. He wants a changed world, an axe at the root of the system. And Jesus’ messenger tells him that things are going well for those Jesus is with – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and poor and even the dead. The reason I’m inclined to think John was not delighted by this news is that Jesus expects him to be disappointed, even offended. Jesus very pointedly adds in his message “and blessed are those who don’t take offense at me.”
Jesus is not dealing with the movers and shakers of the world. He is not holding leadership seminars for tomorrow’s young leaders. He’s on the streets with those who have been discarded by the world, the homeless, the addicts, the streeties, the mental health survivors, the economic dead-weight… and he is having a ball… those guys are finding new life.
How is that supposed to cheer John up? How is that supposed to be the sign that John seeks?
David Lose suggests that in fact these folk do share something in common with the one-time street-preacher, John the Baptist, and that is their need.
John is potentially offended because even in his cell and in his disappointment he has trouble admitting to his need… that he like the friends of Jesus is going to have to depend entirely on God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus then uses this interchange with John the Baptist as an opportunity to pay a tribute to John the Baptist… John wasn’t a “reed blowing in the wind”, this way and that with the trends. John wasn’t a fashion icon. He also wasn’t a politician. He didn’t go around in soft robes (made up for the cameras so to speak) like the guys from the palace. He was a great prophet… BUT and there is definitely a ‘but’ here. The least of the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Jesus is saying that a sea-change has happened since John.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has chosen to suffer violence” [it’s an unusual translation but, I think, it’s a good one]
It’s not a kingdom of heaven that takes the future in hand with violence like an axe at the foot of the tree – like an advancing like an army of judgement. Nor is it a kingdom of heaven that passively suffers violence like John the Baptist because it can do nothing about it, for all that it would like to. It is a kingdom of God which chooses to suffer violence – a third way – and thus is totally dependent on the grace and mercy of God, the God who raises the dead. It’s a kingdom of God that loses possession of its own life in the presence of neighbours in need… but ultimately in the presence of a gracious God. A sea-change has happened and now the kingdom of God expends its political energies with the blind and lame and leprous and poor and dead.
This is where the kingdom of God finds us, with all our hopes and fears, with all our disappointments this Christmas and Advent. Perhaps we are pacing our cage wondering if God really is God
Are we ready to hear Jesus response and to discover the kingdom in the direction that Jesus is pointing us?
h/t to Paul Nuechterlein and David Lose for inspiration in a busy week
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2013
NT Colossians 1:11-20
Gospel: Luke 23:33-43 (to read later)
Today’s three readings relate to Christ the King Sunday. A before and after … and in the middle the Gospel reading has the story of the coronation or the enthronement of the king
Jeremiah gives voice to the hope of Israel for a time of justice created by God. His hope is for a king or messiah who will establish divine justice for Israel. Jeremiah tells his readers. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice…And this is the name by which he shall be called “The Lord is our Righteousness” – or ‘the Lord is our Justice’(that’s the before).
Colossians is an astonishing description – after the event – of the arrival of God’s justice or God’s kingdom. Listen to this for a dramatic account of the arrival of divine justice 1:13
“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Colossians looks back on the arrival of divine justice as a kind of Commando raid into enemy territory. A rescue mission which transfers us into a new political arena – the kingdom of the Son in which humanity is redeemed, restored, brought back to life again. It couldn’t be any more dramatic a metaphor. But Colossians does more. It lifts this whole ancient notion of a Messiah King to a deeper level. It’s easy for us to slip into silly ideas of God. To think of God as something like a Greek or pagan god – a character with the usual human traits and conflicts but with the addition of super-human powers. This makes Superman a kind of God. The God who brings justice to earth, according to Colossians, is the one in whom ‘all things in heaven and earth are created’… He is ‘before all things and in him all things hold together’. That’s probably one of the clearest definitions of God in all of Christian thought. God is not one thing in the world, even the most powerful thing in the world. God is the reason there is a world at all – and by that we mean the reason there is a universe at all, anything at all. God is the source in which all things have their life.
And Colossians says… God (in this serious sense) has lived among us to bring justice to the earth. In the life of Jesus ‘the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ v19. “And through him God was pleased to reconcile (restore) to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross”.
Something has happened between Jeremiah’s vision of justice and the letter to the Colossians that has blown Jewish and Christian imagination out of the water.
Now its time to listen to the story of the enthronement of the king and the arrival of divine justice
Read Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
What stands out in this story is how many times the word King is used in this brief section. Messiah is effectively code-word for king (Messiah = anointed one i.e. coming king). On my count, if we include a reference to “kingdom”, there are five references to king in ten verses … making this whole story a kind of commentary on kingship.
I am reminded of the title of the HBO’s TV series “Game of Thrones”. My daughters tell me “Game of Thrones” is a brutal affair, parental guidance is recommended. Today’s gospel reading is also a story of competing thrones, it is also a brutal affair, parental guidance is recommended. It is the story of God taking up his throne. Jesus is declared to be king, while being crucified among criminals
“They cast lots to divide his clothing” – He has become rubbish and property. His body is to be eaten by the birds and his clothes are rags to be fought over – it is complete shame
“Save your self” is the repeated chorus – a real king would save himself, anyone with the power to do so would save himself, ergo this man is a fraudulent king
The thing that makes a king a king, in everybody’s mind is his ability to save himself, to defend himself. To everyone this man fails the test of being a king.
It is the criminal hanging with him, though, who correctly recognises him as a king (Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom)
The readers of this gospel, those who know that he is risen… who know that God has vindicated his kingship and the justice he brings … the readers of this gospel identify themselves with the criminal “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
And so his defining temptation, his point of ultimate conflict with the world lies at the point at which he refuses to save himself and chooses instead to let himself be captured and killed and finally ‘commends his Spirit into the hands of Abba’. He does not doubt Abba. He is confident that God will vindicate him, confident that the criminal on the cross and he himself will find themselves with God when all is said and done (or perhaps more importantly – that God is with them as they hang there dying).
If a king is someone who ‘saves himself’, who uses his own power for his own ends, Jesus is not a king. His life is, from beginning to end an expression of self-giving into the will of Abba for the sake of those he knows are loved by Abba. According to the crowd’s definition, he is not a King.
He hangs on the cross as a joke on the world. The central event of Christian faith is a joke – God’s joke on the world. The world that puts the title king on his cross, does not know what they are doing. Those who think they are being ironical are in fact telling the truth. Those who think they are proving his failure to be King are in fact enthroning him as king… and as the criminal is told, Jesus is in fact on his way to his kingdom. This is his point of entry. This is his throne.
If Colossians is right then what we have here is God’s drama (God with a big G). The drama that unveils the fraudulence of all human powers of self-defense – of all human desire to ‘save ourselves’. Human kingdoms are unveiled as fraudulent. In the face of divine justice and the divine king.
I began by suggesting that our gospel reading is a ‘Game of thrones’. But this “game of thrones” throws a cat among the pigeons. This game is a game-breaker. It introduces a completely new element into the struggle for power. A king who won’t do what is expected – save himself.
And God’s justice is unveiled as a powerless determination to forgive, and if need be, to suffer in the process. It is the death of all self-defense and the beginning of ‘reconciliation’.
In this way a kingdom is born that is light in darkness – a kingdom that, in contrast to all other kingdoms will never end and will indeed triumph.
This is our faith. Thanks be to God
Luke 21: 5-19
Today’s reading is part of the teachings of Jesus which are usually described as Apocalyptic. This title however can mean all sorts of things (thanks to Hollywood, so lets try an forget hollywood images for a moment). One of the main elements of this apocalyptic way of thinking is that conflict is inevitable. Conflict between the kingdom of God (the rule of God) and the powers that rule the world. Not just governments (but yes Jesus does talk about nations and governers) but all the powers, military, economic, spiritual will come into conflict with the power of Abba God (as Jesus knew his Father).
In short, when Jesus talks apocalyptic he is saying, ‘If you follow me, expect to be in trouble.’
I want to suggest that it’s not a matter of Jesus reading his tea leaves and predicting things. It’s a matter of him deeply understanding the way in which the spiritual order that he was part of differed from everything around him. Worlds. Will. Collide.
There is a kind of trouble that comes to us randomly in our lives. And when it happens we are deeply disturbed by how unfair and inexplicable it is – maybe its cancer or whatever. And we look back at it in confusion and anger at the injustice in our lives.
But there is also trouble we look forward to (anticipate). And the trouble that Jesus is looking forward to it’s not exactly random. It’s a product of an inevitable collision of worlds. Because of the invasion of God’s kingdom, you will face disasters, you will be betrayed by those close to you, they will put some of you to death.
Then he turns it around and says.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify” (now there’s an old-fashioned word). These disasters of apocalypse are, in Jesus mind, an opportunity! An opportunity to bear good news, to testify!
Each month I visit a Spiritual Director. I tell him all about my work here in the parish, about how hard it is to pray and how hard it is to know what to do, and about all the exciting things, and all the difficult things that are going on in Coastal Unity. And he listens carefully and provides insightful observations… The last time I was with him he turned to me and his face lit up and he said something about how much there was going on and then he said something like: “And you can be a bearer of good news in the midst of all of that!”
I guess I’d been sitting there thinking in terms of problem solving. As if it was my problem to solve. And he refocused my attention completely… on being a bearer of good news.
It’s an interesting thought isn’t it… especially in difficult times… to be the bearer of good news… to have your eyes on something else.
Since then I’ve been thinking. I’ve got the easier job than you folk, really. I work in an organization in which the good news is enshrined in our vision statement. It’s on the front of every bulletin. Christ has come. The Kingdom of God has broken into the world and Christ is gathering us together to share in this newness and to be an embodiment of this kingdom of God for the sake of the world. You can read it on the front of our bulletin. God is with us. Love has invaded.
And so my job is much easier than yours. This organization called Coastal Unity (which is my workplace) believes in the good news (at least in theory). You, however, are involved every day of the week in organizations for whom this good news is completely invisible. To those around you, this good news has got to appear like a fantasy… if not craziness then at least dreamy idealistic nonsense. At your work I imagine they will tolerate you giving your time and care to customers or other staff, so long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line, right? It has to make economic sense. It makes no economic sense for a company to sacrifice itself for those in need. Business is business (not charity, we are told). So it’s not that easy to be a bearer of this unbusinesslike good news… And that’s just in the good times, when the Tsunamis are safely overseas in the Philipines.
Jesus says, if you really follow me… you’ll get into conflict with the world you live in. So what do we do when that conflict arises?
Jesus says, Don’t prepare your defense. Don’t rehearse your speech as you enter the room. Jesus knows we will immediately want to defend ourselves and justify our own life before others. Our survival instinct will kick in. We say we are not frightened of death, but the truth is when we are under threat our survival instincts are strong. Our first inclination will be to defend ourselves. Jesus says: Don’t! Try believing the good news instead.
The words you need will be given to you. And what kind of words? Jesus says not words of defence (note!) but words of wisdom – wisdom that your opponents will not be able to withstand. It’s more of an offence than a defense. It’s about testifying. The simple fact is, it’s not about YOU. It’s not about your innocence or guilt. It’s actually not about you or me at all. God is the main agent in this apocalyptic struggle that we find ourselves in. God who is invading this world, will give us the words… I can hear some of you thinking that defending yourself sounds a helluva lot easier than talking about God in public. Self-defence is, I suspect, a much more familiar habit.
But Jesus word about not preparing our defense is less about ‘lack of preparation’ and more about ‘lack of defensiveness’. Every Sunday we are preparing our minds to be bearers of good news. We spend a lifetime listening to the Word and to the Spirit, so that we may be bearers of this good news.
The thing about being a bearer of good news in difficult places is that those who think they are bearing good news discover they are actually being born along by it.
Thanks be to God
At the beginning of the musical Les Miserables, Jean Valjean the bitter young criminal is on the run from the law when a kind priest takes him in and give him food and a bed for the night. In the middle of the night Jean Valjean repays his kindness by getting up and stealing the silverware and leaving … He doesn’t get far when the local police officers capture him red-handed and bring him back to the priest to return the stolen goods. The priest tells the constable that in fact these items are actually his gift to Jean Valjean and Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. So the priest hands over the candlesticks to Valjean and sends him on his way with his blessing and tells him to do well with the silverware.
The story of Les Miserables begins in this way with a great act of love, with reckless forgiveness. It is the story of a strange kind of justice, which creates right relationships by forgiving and embracing the offender. The word for this is grace. What the priest does is grace, and it changes Valjean forever.
As you probably know Les Miserables goes on to tell the story of his lifelong struggle with a police officer called Javert. Javert represents the law and its justice. For him the law is the law, you must pay your dues at all costs, that is justice. There must be an exact accounting of every wrong deed.
So Les Miserables is all about the question what is the right way to live. What is justice? Is Javert right? or is Valjean?
To put it another way: Should we forgive those who wrong us and hurt us, by paying the cost ourselves and absorbing the pain to hold out hope of healing? OR should we insist that the wrongdoers pay the cost of their wrong doing? Do we live under the sign of the scales… or the sign of the cross
There are choices to be made and today our young people are making choices… but its not just random choices about lifestyle that are at stake today. Something much deeper is at work here. These choices have to do with the mystery of God
Todays bible reading says
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Love.”
According to this text, the choices that we make, the life we carve out, can be a sign of and a result of the connection we have with God.
Let’s pause for a moment with that word God. Some people talk about God in phrases like ‘the man upstairs’. And in a way its kind of funny, except at times it seems like that’s how they think about God too. Some kind of being in the universe with greater powers than we have. Perhaps God is the one who kick-started the big-bang and who occasionally intervenes in ways that we can’t. Essentially a person like us, only bigger or more powerful.
But that’s just nonsense… or rather it’s not what Christianity (or for that matter most major religious traditions) is all about. For Christianity, whether you believe in one (or two or three for that matter) of those ‘super-power gods’ is of no interest whatsoever. There might be higher powers under every tree for all I care. That’s not the point. The point is that to believe in God is to believe that the universe does not explain itself, is not sufficient unto itself, but depends on something else. God is why the universe exists at all. One old way of saying this is that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God is the infinite source of everything. Not a thing at all like anything else.
God is love… To believe this is not to believe that there is some ‘man upstairs’ who thinks fondly of us. It is to believe that the absolute source of everything is divine love. Why would we believe that?
Our bible reading goes on:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
The story of Les Miserables is really a parable of the Christian gospel. God, the source of all, has brought love to life in such a way that we can live in it also. The story of Jesus death and resurrection is beautifully captured in the story of a priest who gave his silverware away in an act of forgiveness that gave a man life
To be a Christian then is to know in one’s heart that the source of the universe itself, has made love livable. This is the news that is at work throughout our life, setting us free from every fear that might hold us imprisoned in ourselves and in self-protection.
This is what I believe the Spirit of God is saying in the hearts of Brett and Chris and Caitlin and Daniel.
This is the deep truth that underlies a life ‘following Jesus’. This is the truth that gathers the Christian community to learn to live in and through the forgiveness of Jesus.
Into this truth we are baptised. Chris and Daniel and Caitlin and have been baptised into this. Brett is about to be.
This is the truth that I am inviting you to open your heart to tonight.
Thanks be to God.
Luke 19: 1-10
A guy called D A Carson once began a sermon like this:
I would like to buy about three quid’s worth of gospel please. Not too much – just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted. I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust; I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture. I want ecstasy, not repentance; I want transcendence, not transformation. I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races – especially if they smell. I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected, or my giving too greatly enlarged.
I would like about three quid’s worth of gospel please.
Of course none of us is so crass as to put it that way. But most of us have felt the temptation to opt for a domesticated version of the gospel.
Zacchaeus: the story of someone who got more than three quid’s worth of gospel.
It’s interesting that there are two stories about Tax Collectors in close succession in Luke’s gospel. One came up last Sunday (but Jason didn’t preach from the lectionary). It was about a Tax Collector who prayed and a religious person who went into the Temple to improve his self-esteem.
Today’s Tax Collector, Zacchaeus, is a big wig among Tax Collectors. He’s a chief Tax Collector… It’s important to get this. Tax Collectors are despised. They have sold their soul to the devil. They work for the Roman overlords. They collect from the poor to pay the rich and line their own estate in the process.
Jesus just loves to take the hated ones and make them the stars of the stories – and in his everyday life to make them his friends.
In the first story about the two men who pray, it is the Tax Collector who is the one who knows how to pray. Rather than protecting himself, he brings all his dirty washing to God. He somehow knows what the presence of God is all about and he goes there knowing his need, his great need of help, change, mercy, salvation. He knew what it meant to pray.
And it’s like Luke has chosen to include a story of another Tax Collector in the following chapter to take us a step forward. If the first story is about the inner character of prayer. In the second story we learn what prayer looks like when it is lived out – when the rubber of prayer hits the road of everyday life.
Zacchaeus is short and he climbs a tree to see (so begins the psycho-drama of a thousand sermons and Sunday School lessons). But I think the real drama of this story begins with Jesus’ response to this. Jesus acts the fool. The crowd agrees what Jesus does is stupid. Jesus chooses to go to the home of the badly-behaved hated person. “Why would he encourage someone like that? It’ll just make Zacchaeus feel more important. Why reward bad behaviour?” Nowadays we would be worried that the media would get a hold of it. That it would send the wrong message, right? Which of us would accept a meal invitation from the local brothel or marijuana house?
Jesus doesn’t accept an invitation, he initiates friendship. “Come down Zacchaeus! I’m going to your place today.”
Justice does not come through being treated in accord with the way he has behaved (i.e. badly). Justice comes through being befriended at the meal table. The meal table is the place of true justice. It’s the place where relationships are restored rather than where people get what they deserve
It’s striking that it’s Zacchaeus’s home, but Jesus invites himself. He doesn’t wait to be invited. Jesus turns the tables on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s table suddenly becomes Jesus table. Not by an act of violence but by an invitation. Jesus effectively creates the space for hospitality, even though it isn’t his space originally. Jesus sneaks under Zacchaeus’s guard and makes a home visit. Zacchaeus’s big flash house becomes Jesus space of hospitality and friendship.
The local villagers fear that to do such a thing, to give a Tax Collector the dignity of a home visit, will only encourage him in his bad behaviour. But in fact the opposite is the case. Grace produces, not licence but repentance.
Zacchaeus doesn’t beat about the bush “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.” …That is one of the great lines of the NT.
To which Jesus replies: “Today Salvation has come to this house.” Salvation does house calls. Zacchaeus (the bad man) got it. He didn’t want ‘three quid’ of gospel for his own improvement. His was a new life.
All because Jesus chose to embrace the enemy… And Zacchaeus then ended up embracing those he had harmed.
On November the 5th we celebrate Parihaka day in NZ, or at least we should celebrate it. For some reason we tend to do Guy Fawkes instead. There’s one element of the story which always sticks in my mind. For those not completely familiar with the Parikaha story. It is the great story of NZ’s own non-violent resistance, NZ’s equivalent of Gandhi. At a time when the colonial government was busy stealing land, hand over fist, a group of Maori in the Taranaki region lead by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi had come to believe that the violence was incompatible with following Jesus. So they began a campaign of non-violent resistance. They snuck out at night and pulled out the surveyors pegs. They ploughed land ahead of the govt agents… and so on. But the bit of the story that always inspires me is that on the day the government decided to send in the troups … the children greeted them with poi dances and the women of the village baked bread for them and invited them to eat.
The enemy was invited to table, the invitation was there. This time there was no Zacchaeus moment. The people of Parihaka had chosen what ended up being the way of the cross. The village was burnt down, the women raped, many killed and men taken off into exile, imprisoned in Lytelton harbour and given hard labour building roads in Dunedin.
This is our history of Zacchaeus … with no conversion. The table was set but Zacchaeus didn’t come to the party.
In the bible the story ended well for Zacchaeus… not financially well, but well. He gave half his possessions to the poor and paid back those he had damaged with 4 times as much. … and that day salvation came to his house.
Perhaps salvation is still coming to the house of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Perhaps those who have heard the news of salvation’s arrival are choosing instead to opt for “three quids worth of gospel”.
Salvation is still coming to this house.
Thanks be to God.
My discovery of Christian Wiman came via his prose book My Bright Abyss reflecting on his battle with cancer. I knew from that book that I needed to read his poetry immediately. So I quickly ordered Every Riven Thing and waited for a hard copy to be shipped to NZ (no kindle edition!). The wait was worth it though. Clive James’s comment on the back is dramatic but not far from the truth: “The best thing to say about Wiman is not that he reminds you of previous poets; it’s that he makes you forget them.”
The hardest thing is to decide what to share on this blog to give you a taste of Wiman’s brilliance. I guess the obvious thing is to choose two of his most explicitly theological poems, one of which captures powerfully his struggle with cancer. The first sample is called “2047 Grace St” and is part 2 of a poem entitled One Time.
2. 2047 Grace St
But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing emerges,
into which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. Praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
in Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , New York, 2010), p. 29-30
This next one is the title poem of the volume. It is both a profound theological reflection and a brilliantly clever construction. Notice that each stanza begins with the same words on the first line. Only the punctuation changes.
Every Riven Thing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
in Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , New York, 2010), p. 24-25