November 4, 2001
A Brokenness that Leads to Joy
The trouble with some of the stories in the Bible is that they become so well known that they are hard to work with or even to access in a new way, because they have so many layers of interpretation and understanding. The story of Zacchaeus is one of those, at least for me. I have heard it so many times, (I think I heard it every year in either Sunday School, Bible class in school, or Vacation Bible school) I have sung the songs about climbing up the sycamore tree and I have even colored pictures of the story in my Bible Story coloring book. When I signed up to preach and saw that this was the Gospel lesson, I quickly looked at the other lessons to see if I could work with them instead, but, for some reason they did not interest me and it felt somehow important to work with this story…again.
As our story opens, Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. Jericho, the place where our story takes place, is his last stop before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. His end is near, and Jesus has been predicting his own death. He has also been teaching his disciples on this final journey about his radical views of who God is, and what the Kingdom of God is all about. One could say this was a final cram course for the disciples. Over the last few Sundays, we have touched on some of those teachings. We have seen Jesus heal the 10 lepers, showing us how being grateful, and acknowledging our healing makes us whole, not just healed. Moreover, we have heard the story of the persistent widow, and the unjust judge – showing that God will do justice if we are persistent. We also have heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple- showing that right living and obeying the rules does not make us worthy of a relationship with God, but rather that God looks for an open and contrite heart regardless of who you are. Therefore, as Jesus comes into Jericho he is building on what he has been teaching along the way.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho. That meant that he was rich. Rich through being associated with the despised Romans, and rich because he was able to take advantage of his position as a tax collector to take more than he was entitled to. In addition, he was short…so short, in fact, that he had to climb up into a sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus. In his community he was ridiculed not only for what he did – a collector of taxes for the despised Romans and a cheater on top of it all, but also for who he was, the very fact that he was so short. In our story, we see that the people of Jericho showed how little they thought of him by not allowing him through the crowd to see Jesus. However, Zacchaeus was creative. He just went on down the road, ahead of Jesus, and climbed up into the sycamore tree and waited for Jesus to come to him.
I wonder Zacchaeus lived his life that way. In order to compensate for people's hatred, did he anticipate the places where people would need him and his money, the only thing in his life that people grudgingly respected, and did he use that to take care of his need to be a part of community, and his need for love? We do not know, but I wonder….
So Jesus, and sees this little man in the tree. Instead of passing him by, ignoring him, turning a cold shoulder to him, or just laughing at him, Jesus stops and calls him by his name. (A name, which by the way, means pure,) and says, “Get down from that ridiculous perch, and take me home with you. Let’s have a party!” Therefore, Zacchaeus gets down and takes Jesus home and they have a party.
Midway through dinner, Zacchaeus clinks his knife on his glass and makes a dinner speech. He says, “I will give half of my income to the poor and anyone I have defrauded, I will repay 4 times.” This was an act required by the law. Then Jesus says, somewhat obscurely, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.“
What if we turn the normal interpretation of this story- that Zacchaeus suddenly understood what Jesus was all about, that he had in essence a conversion experience because Jesus came to his house that day. That he became willing to sell half of what he owned and to pay back four times those that he defrauded because of this experience, around.
What if instead, we see this tax collector saying exactly what the Pharisee prayed in last weeks’ Gospel lesson? What if he pats himself on the back for being able to follow and do what the law required? Trying to claim his place fully with in the Jewish community. Moreover, what if instead of Jesus' words being laudatory, we hear words full of irony and tinged with sorrow. That when Jesus said “Today salvation has come to this house,” he really meant that he, himself, was the means of Zacchaeus’ salvation, not the money that Zacchaeus was going to give to the poor or by following the law which required him to return four fold to those he defrauded. What if Jesus saw through Zaccheaus’ attempt to redeem himself and get back into the good graces of the community and God? He was shaking his head and saying, “Here we go again! You cannot win God’s acceptance this way! It sure is a good thing that, “Today Salvation came to this house; For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Because it is through my brokenness and your brokenness that you are made whole before God
When I read this interpretation in a book called Parables of Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon, it suddenly broke open this story for me. Somehow being able to see Zacchaeus as being stuck in old patterns, unable to see the gift of God’s acceptance, even after Jesus demonstrated it, by actually Incarnating that acceptance in himself and inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home and sitting down and eating with him, makes sense to me. That is a person I can identify with, because that is also who I am.
Last week, as some of you know, I had a both physical and spiritual experience at Carroll Street. It was really a rather simple physical experience – I used a sledgehammer and I bashed some walls down. Got a few bruises and felt many muscles in my arms and upper body that I did not even know I had! Nevertheless, it was also a profound spiritual experience for me because I knew in that moment that it was a metaphor for my own spiritual journey. As my body swung that sledgehammer, my soul awakened and I became conscious of the holy in that moment. There were not any angels singing, and there was not a voice that spoke, but nonetheless it was a burning bush moment. I felt that I had entered holy ground. It was one of those "AHAA!" experiences, when the holy breaks through into your life.
I have been taking care of things most of my life. Like many of you, I have been nurturing, creating, taking care of, picking up the pieces, putting back together, salvaging what is left, bandaging, putting away, cleaning up after, washing and kissing it to make it better, most of my life. I have seen the effects of destruction, and I have spent a lot my time and energy cleaning up the aftermath. In some way, this has made me leery, fearful, and avoidant of destruction. It is just so destructive…it makes a mess…and I have to clean it up! Destruction = work, in my mind.
Before our first community wide meeting at Carroll Street more than a year ago, I went over to the building and cleaned up, trying to make something ugly and old, into something warm and inviting. I vacuumed that ugly orange carpet; I cleaned the bathrooms, and cleaned around the windows. I bought some supplies; toilet paper, tablecloths, cleaning supplies, sponges and paper products for the meals we would share. Although all of that helped some, my efforts never really transformed that building. It was just cosmetic change.
When the work parties were announced, I thought to myself, “Well, here is another way others can become invested in the building.” and did not even consider that I would go and do anything, after all I might chip my nail polish or maybe even a nail! However, after reports of the first weekend effort came filtering back, I thought, “It might be good if Marian and Lauren could be a part of that.” Therefore, when the email came around I signed us up. Marian and Lauren were not able to go, but I felt committed to go and so I went, and I was hooked. For the most part, I was trucking the debris of destruction in a wheelbarrow from the building to the dumpster. Back and forth. Back and forth. Still, in my clean up mode… Nevertheless, the relationships that we formed as we passed each other in the driveway were great and made the work easy. The next week I went again, and then again….
This time I was working on the first floor with Kate Amoss, Lewise, Liz Gould-Leger and Linda Strand. Bill and Steve were there too, in full destruction mode. Suddenly, at their invitation, I found myself with a sledgehammer, and Bill and Steve were taking turns showing me where to hit and how to be destructive in the most efficient way possible. I took a whack, and then another, and then another. Soon one side of the wall was coming down…I turned to Kate and Linda, and I urged them to try it, they just had to experience this too. I could tell that Kate was wondering what was wrong with me, but she humored me and took the sledgehammer and began to whack away…and she too felt that “something else” in that experience. Moreover, while we were whacking, banging, and kicking the wall board down, Bill, Steve and Mike Strand were gathering up the debris and carting it away in the wheelbarrows! Steve told me later, “You know, you guys were so into destruction that you smashed the wall board into little itty bitty pieces.”
So how is this story a metaphor for my spiritual journey? Jesus invites me to brokenness, to destruction, to death. I have heard that repeatedly, and I know it is true. I have experienced it myself, and yet there is a part of me that still thinks that if I just tidy up my life a bit, even out the ragged edges, smooth out the wrinkles, glue it back together and just make it a bit more presentable, then I will be fine. Several years ago, I finally acknowledged the limit to what I could continue to do by doing that kind of cosmetic renovation of my life.
You may remember my sermon, about being call-less in a community where call is everything. As I look back at it now it was a sermon about many small deaths. Death to my illusions about why this community was not right for me, death to my feelings that what Seekers was offering and could offer Marian and Lauren was not good enough, and most importantly death to the idea that without a specific call I was nothing. That in essence, I felt that my only value to God and to this community was what I could do for you and for God. What I said to you that day was, “I see myself as valueless, I feel I have no place here, I am broken, but I am staying, because I sense that here, just what I am, maybe enough.”
It was a hard sermon to preach and it was probably a hard sermon to hear. In the comment time afterward Kevin Ogle’s Mom, who happened to be visiting that Sunday said something that has stayed with me all this time. She said, “But where is the joy?” I did not know the answer then, but I think I glimpse it now.
It is in being broken open, it is in Dying to the illusion that we can make ourselves valuable to God and to others by what we do, that we open ourselves up to the fact, and to the promise, that God loves us just as we are, in all of our untidy, inadequate, brokenness. Moreover, the joy in that is that I do not have to keep up appearances any more, that I no longer have to hide the tear, smooth out the wrinkles and try to make it more presentable. It just does not matter anymore. What a relief that is because it gets harder and harder to maintain that illusion. Instead, I can spend energy on using a sledgehammer to really gut the place and install some real things. I can install things that really give me real life, not just the illusion of life.
Like the work that we have been doing at Carroll Street, I have not been working alone on my spiritual renovation project. Although I did have to come to the place where I could accept and acknowledge that it needed to be done on my own, I have had enormous help and support from many of you individually, and from this community as a whole, which creates a safe place for all of this to unfold. Like Bill and Steve who handed me the sledgehammer, my spiritual directors, and my teachers in the School of Christian Living gave me the invitation and the tools I needed to knock down the walls that were keeping me from the holy. Walls like my pride, my anger at others that was really anger and fear about my own failings, realizing that my issues around money were really about my skewed sense of wanting and needing, and on and on. Like Bill and Steve who told me how to go about doing what I needed to do to get the most bang for the buck, I was encouraged to be serious about my spiritual practices, to not pick up doing anything too soon, to not be to eager to pursue the first “call” that I felt I was hearing. I was encouraged to be patient, to wait, and to listen. Like Kate, Lewise, Linda and Liz who were there when I noticed and felt the wonderful powerful energy in destruction and sensed it’s spiritual dimension and who validated that for me, many of you have been with me on this journey and have offered me your affirmation, nurturing support and validation for the little glimpses of truth that I have found along the way. In addition, many of you have held me accountable when I have been slacking off and slipping into my old ways. And my family, who has been patient with me, supporting me and letting me take classes, and become more deeply involved in things that feed me spiritually even when that meant sacrifices at home and who have often been the instruments of my deepest insights. Finally, this community who, by incarnating God’s love for me, gave me and continues to give me the strength and the courage to go on digging deeper into the dark and hidden places of my life, places that are ugly and shameful, and to acknowledge my own humanness, in it’s totality, because I know through you, and through your love for me, that God loves me, too.
Of course the work continues…just when I think I have mined something enough, I realize that there is more, much more. However, as each layer is removed, and I see myself more clearly, there is more joy. This is the Mystery. There is joy in the fact that each time I can acknowledge a failure, each time I am broken open, there is a small but necessary transformation. There is Joy in a conversion and redemption of that deformed and unhealthy place. Joy in the fact that I have one less place of maintaining an illusion of my “goodness,” which has its own heavy cost on my soul.
The other thing that I have noticed is that by really making changes deep within, not just cosmetic changes, I have begun to change my “doing.” Because I have begun to know the depth God’s love for me, I can begin to be more loving to others, even when they are acting in unloving ways to me. Because I am beginning to know that my value is not tied up in doing, I can begin let go of my need to get something done, and allow space for new vision and new insight. I am realizing that the “doing” that we see as a part of living the Christian life is integrally tied to and is totally dependant on the fact that we are being with God’s help.
Being broken open means that there is destruction, but it also means that there is room for new creation, for nurturing something of God in my life, for beginning to be completely what God had envisioned for me from the beginning of time. I need both in my life; I need that destructive energy that allows me to break open, and I need the patient, nurturing energy, that allows something new and wonderful to grow.
Therefore, maybe in the end it does not really matter which way you look at this story…Whether you think Zacchaeus really understood Jesus' radical message that it is not what we do that God looks at, but rather our ability to see ourselves as we really are, warts and all. That he understood that God loves us just as we are, and because of that understanding he was then able to let go of the wealth, and prestige and the power that he had amassed in order to protect himself from the ostracism, and intolerance that surrounded him. On the other hand, you may think that he really did not get it at all. That he thought that since this was what was required of him by the law, he would make this gesture, and through it win acceptance from the community, and God.
Because, what really matters is what Jesus said. That the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. That God’s promise to us is that we are accepted, already, as we are in our lostness and brokenness, through Christ’s brokenness. We reenact that brokenness every time we have communion.
A Brokenness that leads to Joy.