Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phil Kniss: Uncalculated generosity

Between Exodus & Promised Land: Releasing our hold
Luke 19:1-10

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So we’ve been looking for the wisdom of Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel,
    on how to live well in the wilderness.
Today, the last of the series,
    we find this strange and memorable story of Zacchaeus—
    He’s a small character.
    Or, as the old children’s song puts it, “a wee little man.”

    Small maybe, but Zacchaeus has a large place in the Gospel story.
        I’ll bet the majority of persons on the streets of Harrisonburg
            would say they’ve heard a story
                about an elfish little man who climbed a sycamore tree
                    to get a better look at Jesus.
        They might not know much more,
            but they know that.

    When I get an overly familiar story to preach from,
        I dig a little deeper.
        There’s usually something fresh to uncover.

    This time, I’m looking at the story through a certain lens—
        the lens we set up for this series.
    It asks the question . . .
        What is there in Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings,
            that can give us some help, some insight,
            into living in this in-between time—
            between Exodus and the Promised Land?
        The land where we now live.
        The land where the Jewish people of Jesus’ day also lived.
            Not in outright slavery, like Egypt.
            But not with full human flourishing, either.
                In-between land.
                Social and political and spiritual desert.

    So if they lived there, and we live there,
        maybe there is more of a direct link than we think,
            between the world of the Gospels and our world.
        At least, enough of a link
            to take Jesus’ teachings and stories to heart,
            and ponder what it means for us today.

There are multiple angles I could take with the Zacchaeus story.
    But I’m being guided by this lens of life in the wilderness.

One of the things we know about wilderness,
    is how unmanageable it is.
    It’s a wild environment.
So when we find ourselves in a wilderness,
    our natural instinct is to take whatever measures we can,
        to insert at least some small semblance of security,
        in a place where everything else is insecure.

    And that, is precisely how Zacchaeus structured his life.
        His wilderness, and the wilderness of every first-century
            Palestinian Jew,
            was living under Roman occupation,
                and more specifically, the brutality of King Herod,
                Caesar’s surrogate in Judea.

    In a context where the Empire exercised absolute control,
        different people dealt with it in different ways.
            Some resisted. Some collaborated with Rome.
            Some just lived quietly, trying not to be noticed.

    But Zacchaeus was a man with a plan.
    Zacchaeus was a calculator.
        He probably weighed all his options,
            before he took this loathsome job
                of collecting taxes for Rome.
        He might have had some personal factors in his life
            that made him more likely to sidle up with Rome.
            Maybe his family system wasn’t there for him.
            Maybe he had few friends and loyal confidantes.
            Maybe he was already a loner,
                and didn’t have much to lose, socially.

    But for whatever reason, Zacchaeus was willing to cross over,
        to leverage himself and whatever good will he had,
        in order to get back at least some power and security for himself.

    Last Sunday I talked a bit about the Roman taxation system,
        when we looked at the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector.
    How the system was created to funnel money to the Empire
        by whatever means necessary.
        It was a brilliant political move by the occupying force
            to outsource tax collection to private entities,
            that employed locals.
        For one, it brought in more revenue,
            because it’s harder to hide money
            from people who know you, and all your relatives.
        And as a bonus,
            pitting one group of locals against another group of locals,
            inserts chaos in the system,
                makes it harder to unite against the Empire.

    I doubt Zacchaeus actually saw himself as a pawn of the Empire.
        But he probably did calculate personal cost and benefit.
            And for him, he came out ahead.
        By collecting taxes for Rome,
            he made his own financial position secure,
            ensured he would have a house and food and clothes,
                and a lot of other comforts money can buy.
        And he even rose up the ranks,
            to become a chief tax collector,
            which meant other tax collectors worked for him,
                and funneled their receipts to him,
                and he passed them on to the next level,
                    after taking his cut.
            It was a nice gig.
            Zacchaeus’ calculations were paying dividends.

        I’m sure he wasn’t a huge fan of Herod and Caesar,
            and all their occupying forces.
        He wasn’t an Empire man.
            But in this particular Jewish wilderness, he was making it.
                He was surviving.
            The way he calculated it,
                when it was all over, he’d still be standing,
                with money in hand.

    What Zacchaeus did is not an unreasonable strategy
        for wilderness survivors.
        When life is a bit wild and unpredictable,
            when things seem outside our control,
            one way to survive
                is to grab the little bit of control you have and hold on.

    I don’t blame Zacchaeus for this.
        He surely had his reasons.
    In fact, this strategy—
        of identifying and maximizing
            whatever small bits of control you still have over your life—
        that’s actually a strategy for health and wellbeing,
            especially in extreme wilderness environments.
        That’s how people manage to survive concentration camps,
            or kidnappings,
            or slavery,
            or abusive relationships,
            or other circumstances of extreme suffering.

    Although . . . we might consider those situations
        outright imprisonment,
        more than wilderness.
    The wilderness we all live in, daily,
        is after the Exodus, before the Promised Land.
    Those more severe situations are pre-Exodus,
        still back in Egypt,
        under violent oppression of slavery.
    While in Egypt, the Zacchaeus strategy
        of doing what we can to regain a little control,
        can keep us from dying in that state of oppression.

    But in this in-between state where we are,
        where the wilderness is not immediately life-threatening,
        but actually a life-long state in which we are called to live—
            maybe in this wilderness,
            another, less calculating approach is called for.

And that uncalculated approach,
    is what suddenly came to Zacchaeus, apparently,
    when he came face-to-face with the love and compassion of Jesus.

The text isn’t quite clear exactly when Zacchaeus had this revelation.
    Was it as soon as Jesus called him down from the tree?
    Was it during or after the meal in his home?
    Was it after long and agonizing conversations with Jesus,
        who taught his followers not to worry about what they will eat,
            or what they will wear,
        but to be like the lilies of the field, and the sparrows of the air,
            whom God cares for lovingly and generously?

Whatever the timing,
    whatever the context,
    whatever the motivation,
        this much is clear.

    A personal encounter with the love and acceptance of Jesus,
        caused Zacchaeus to do an about face.
    He turned away from a calculated strategy that benefitted him,
        and he turned toward an uncalculated generosity.
    He promised, publicly, to give half his possessions to the poor.
        And whatever he had taken unjustly,
            he would repay four times as much.

    Such a rash public promise was pretty uncalculated on his part.
        But we can calculate it for him.
        Let’s do the math.
            Assume only 1/8 of the taxes he collected
                were the result of overcharging or bribing
                    or other common practices.
            Zacchaeus would be left with nothing. Zero.
            Follow me? Divide his wealth into 8 equal parts.
                4 of those parts he gives away.
                1 of those parts he multiplies by 4, and pays out.
            Now he’s flat broke.
        Either, Zacchaeus was more honest than most tax collectors,
            and hardly ever overcharged.
        Or he took a huge uncalculated risk in making that promise.

Now, this all makes for a wonderful salvation story.
    We rejoice, with Jesus, and with the Gospel writer,
        that salvation came to that house that day.
    We rejoice with Zacchaeus,
        that he found his place of belonging again,
        within his family and community.
    We rejoice with the poor of Jericho,
        who benefitted from this sudden windfall,
        and maybe repaid some of their debts.

We rejoice . . . until we realize the obvious.
    That way of living, with uncalculated generosity,
        is the whole point of the story.
        It’s a way of life being commended to us,
            by Jesus and the Gospel.

The question we all need to face, if we take the story seriously,
    is “Are we prepared to release our hold
        on what gives us security,
        and live with uncalculated generosity?”

Now, I’m not suggesting the word of God for us this morning
    is that we all give until we’re broke, penniless, and dependent,
        not only in terms of money,
        but also in time, talents, relationships.
    I’m not inviting us to be stupid and reckless
        with everything we have.

But I am inviting us to be a little less calculating.
    I say this as a consummate calculator, myself.
    I like to weigh the cost.
    And I like to compare the cost to the benefit.
        And I do that before I decide something.

So I’m brought up short by Zacchaeus,
    who towers over me,
    in his willingness to be uncalculatingly generous.

Think about it, if I have structured my life in such a way,
    that it’s almost impossible to lose,
    haven’t I just eliminated the need for faith?

If I have made my own lot secure,
    by calculating what I need and when,
        and ensuring it’s there whenever I need it,
    am I leaving room for any new life-changing adventure,
        and the risk that inevitably goes with it?

If I have worked things out to my advantage in my wilderness,
    in order to be as secure in mine, as Zacchaeus was in his . . .
    then maybe I’m just as much in need of salvation as he was.

We all have different kinds of wilderness.
    And therefore, we have different kinds of security strategies.
    I don’t know where this story touches yours.
        You’ll have to ponder and reflect on that.

Some of you may right now be just as secure as Zacchaeus was,
    prior to his encounter with Jesus.
    So the challenge to you is to have the courage to release your hold
        on that security you are enjoying—
            be that financial, or professional, or relational,
                or psychological, or religious security.
        The word from this Gospel might be to let go
            of what is helping your wilderness
            be more predictable and manageable.

But others . . . might be at a very different place.
    You may be reeling right now
        with an overwhelming sense of in-security.
    In your wilderness, you might find yourself at a precipice—
            financially, professionally, relationally,
                psychologically, or spiritually.
    It might feel like you’re in a free fall right now,
        so letting go isn’t your biggest problem.

    Maybe it’s finding something solid to hold on to.
    In that case, maybe the word of today’s Gospel for you
        is to lean in to the love of Jesus in a deeper way,
            in the absence of other forms of security.

    At our most insecure, we’re not likely to claw our way back,
        or calculate our escape from the wilderness.
        Maybe the best thing we can do,
            is lean harder on the love of God that is ours in Christ,
            and watch that love take on flesh
                in the lives of our sisters and brothers around us,
            and then see where that love takes us.

    Maybe in this story,
        you can find comfort in a Jesus who pursues us,
            and meets us wherever we are in the wilderness—
            in the crowd, up a tree, at the table, in the temple.
        Jesus seeks us out, invites us to a deeper level of dependence,
            and brings salvation.

    Jesus’ last words in this story, to Zacchaeus, to the crowd, were,
        “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
    Those are words for us, as well, in our various forms of lostness.
        Jesus came to save, that is,
            to rescue, to heal, to make whole, to bring shalom,
            to make it well with our souls.

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2016

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