Sermons for a Missional Community #2
Play verse 1,2 and chorus of You want it darker (Cohen)
This song by Leonard Cohen came out on a new album this week… it goes to the dark places in human nature. But listen to the chorus. Hineni Hineni. I’m ready my Lord
Hineni is a Hebrew word that means ‘here I am’. It’s a phrase that comes up three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Where we are told God tested Abraham. Firstly God calls out ‘Abraham’ and Abraham replies ‘Hineni’. Here I am. I am present. I am available. One way of reading this story is to see that Abraham passed the test with this response. Hineni. Then, as we know Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. But God finally averts this demand. But the second time this word comes up is when Isaac begins to cotton on to the horror of what is about to happen and says ‘My Father’. Abraham replies ‘Hineni, my Son’. Here I am. Again Abraham is present and available to his Son. Abraham is caught between two demands on his presence, his availability. Finally, as the knife is raised, God speaks again. Abraham, Abraham, and Abraham replies… [you guessed it]… Here I am, Hineni.
The moment of availability, of presence. Who are we there for?
Zaccheaus, on the other hand, makes himself completely unavailable. He hides behind the thick leaves of a sycamore tree as Jesus comes by. He seeks the safety of an observer. He is hiding away like a spectator behind his TV or computer screen – unavailable
Jesus parks himself under Zaccheaus’s tree looks up and says. Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down. I’m coming to your place to stay.
Hurry up and come down… There’s urgency in Jesus voice. Don’t muck around Zacchaeus.
Come down from your tree. Come down from behind all your defences. Come down to where the others are. Come down to where Jesus is with them.
Curiously, he just does it. He has been called out. And it’s like for all his hiding and for all his unavailability… it’s like he’s been waiting to be called out. Do you know that experience? Perhaps you are afraid… and what it takes is for someone to call you out.
A moment of availability begins for Zacchaeus with a moment of humility ‘He hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
Today we have two stories about Tax Collectors… and in both stories the Tax Collectors end up demonstrating humility. They come down out of their tree. They know their need.
But why Tax Collectors? What is it about Tax Collectors that makes them of particular interest to Jesus?
Tax Collectors represent the empire. They are the agents of Rome on the ground among the people.
In a week or so the American people get to vote on the leaders of the empire in our time. Who will get to control the military forces that keep the corporations in control of our world? Will it be Hillary or will it be Donald? Who will reign over us? It will played out for us all as we watch from the safety of our TV screens and computers.
Zacchaeus is not a figurehead of the empire like Donald or Hillary. He is an agent on the ground. He is just doing his job. But boy what a job! He is the interface between the empire that rules the world and the people who want to be different. For Jews he is therefore the worst and most despised person. Often tax collectors were themselves Jews. Traitors to the calling of Israel, agents of the enemies of God and thieves to boot.
In both stories it is these Tax Collectors who are the ones who become become models of salvation. The Tax Collector in the temple becomes a model of prayer. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. The man who has so deeply connected his destiny to the pride of the Roman Empire, has been humbled. He has no excuses … Somehow he has come to see with great clarity his failure before God.
His opposite number, the deeply religious man who seeks the purity of the people of God, prays quite differently. Lord I thank you that I am not like one of them… It’s the Pharisee who needs to come down out of his tree in this story. I thank you that I am not like those people in Social Housing, I thank you that I am not like Hillary and Donald, I thank you that I am not like… [you can fill in your own group]. He sees these people. Maybe in his pious moments he even prays for them. But as he prays he has separated himself from them like Zacchaeus up his tree.
But all is not lost for Zacchaeus. In this story he becomes a model of the life of the kingdom.
Both Tax Collectors have their moment of repentance
Jesus says: Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.
Interesting… he doesn’t say I want to talk to you. In the end its ‘salvation has come to this house’. I think this is a metaphor for his whole life. Jesus is saying I don’t simply want to change your beliefs I want to come into your whole life, to stay at your house.
The result is beautiful. At the end of Jesus stay with Zacchaeus… after the whole town has been talking non-stop about Jesus foolishly staying with a sinner… Zacchaeus stands up and says.
“Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor …and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”
Household repentance. Economic repentance. Jesus has stayed at his house and his household economy is changing
There’s two aspects of this repentance. There’s wealth and there’s reconciliation.
The thing we know about Zacchaeus (apart from him being an agent for the Inland Revenue) is that he is rich. And throughout the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus, money gets bad press. Money is not neutral in the New Testament.
Last week I read an article by one of the world’s most influential living theologians. He has been hiding away on a new project doing his own translation of the NT. It’s being eagerly awaited by those who know. In the article he talked about the things that struck him afresh as he immersed himself in the New Testament was how extreme it was. In particular he comments on how the NT is opposed to the accumulation of wealth and is scathing of those who are rich. Wealth in the New Testament is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. You don’t so much have it as it has you. And the more you hold onto it the greater its power over you.
We struggle to understand this in the modern world because we like the illusion that we are rational beings most of the time… and can simply control things like this by thinking about it.
But that’s not the way the NT thinks
Zaccheaus has been exposed to great wealth. His first act of repentance is to give lots of it away. He redistributes large amounts of it to the poor. But the point is not so much that salvation comes to the world through redistribution of wealth. It is that salvation comes to Zaccheaus as he is released from the grip of his wealth. But as he is released from its grip, he also moves towards the poor. He has come down from his tree.
He can see those he has damaged as real people and not just sources of income. So the second part of his salvation is addressing the injustice he has created. Reconciliation with those he may have defrauded. He gives back four times as much.
His repentance means his household has been turned inside out. From a household bent on its own success, turned in on itself, it becomes a household turned outward towards the poor, turned outwards towards the healing of relationships and reconciliation. Because salvation is never merely an individual thing. Jesus doesn’t say ‘Today salvation has come to this tax collector’ (although that is also true). He says ‘Today salvation has come to this house’.
The moment of availability… It comes to him when Jesus calls him out, draws his hospitality out of him.
The moment of humility … Lord have mercy on me a sinner… it’s the moment of coming down out of his tree.
And finally the moment of repentance… a turning outwards towards the poor… away from religious purity (phariseeism) and away from the empire… towards those who are losing the struggle to succeed in the dog eat dog world created by the empire.
Tax Collector’s stand at the intersection of the Roman Empire and the Jewish world. In Zacchaeus’s repentance it becomes the intersection of that empire with the kingdom and reign of God.
Today I want to remind us that this is not just a private thing for you or me. As a congregation we are called to move out of any self-serving notions of success – any religious versions of capitalism. We are not here to build up this congregation. We are here to demonstrate God’s salvation… the same salvation that came to Zacchaeus’s house. Our calling is to move out to those who are not doing so well in the dog-eat-dog empire we live in.
Hineni is the first response. Here I am. Here we are.