In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle quotes the Right Reverend Mark Dyer as saying that “the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale” (16). A few weeks ago, I went to our bishop’s convocation in Helena where the statistics and demographics guy from the Churchwide offices, Ken Inskeep, spoke to us about what that rummage sale is looking like in the ELCA. For a guy who likes statistics, Dr. Inskeep wasn’t as boring as I thought he would be. Yes, he told us that the ELCA is declining in membership and gave us the figures to prove it, but he also interpreted those figures and spoke about some of the reasons why this was happening. Many of those reasons have to do with changes in society and the church’s role in society. And the bottom line is, if we want to survive and thrive as a church in the 21st century, we can’t pretend that we are still living in the 1950s and the 1960s. The baby boom is over, and it’s not coming back. Young people are not marrying right out of college, and they’re having fewer children and they’re having them later in life. And they’re not asking the same kinds of theological questions that people may have been asking in the 50s, the 60s, and even as far back as the 1500s, when Martin Luther had his crisis of faith and posted the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And one of those questions ties in with our Gospel lesson about Zacchaeus today: the question of salvation.
At the end of our story today, after Zacchaeus announces that he is giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back anyone he has defrauded, Jesus proclaims, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” The question here is, “What is salvation?” Jesus is not saying that Zacchaeus is going to go to heaven when he dies, although that may be the case. Salvation, in this case, means something completely different, because Jesus announces that it has come today, not in some distant future. So, what does Jesus mean by the word salvation, if it is not about going to heaven?
Here it is helpful to go back to the Hebrew word for “save,” which is yesha. The root meaning of this word is to make wide or spacious. The idea of being saved, then, carries with it the idea of making something wide that once was narrow; setting someone or something free from bonds that have been making their world narrower than it should have been. Being saved, then, for a prisoner could mean being physically set free from their prison. Or, if we want to use the word metaphorically, it could mean being set free from a mental prison of guilt and grief. For a poor person, making her world wider might mean giving her food, clothing, or free child care for a month so that she can spend money on other things. And what about for a rich tax collector, like Zacchaeus?
If you remember from last week when I was talking about how tax collectors were regarded in 1st century Jewish society, then you’ll remember that they were hated as traitors to their people and collaborators with the occupying force of Rome. Their payment for collecting Rome’s taxes from the people was whatever more they could force people to pay over and above what they owed for taxes. The fact that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector meant that he was really good at his job, and the fact that he was rich: well, that means that he was good at getting people to give him money over and above their taxes. But, he paid a price for all of this wealth. When Jesus announces that he is going to eat with Zacchaeus, everyone starts to grumble because Jesus is going to eat with “a sinner”. Zacchaeus may have had friends among the rich and powerful, but he was cast out from “good” Jewish society.
So, what does salvation look like for Zacchaeus? Jesus suggests that Zacchaeus, though still a child of Abraham, is lost. We don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus. Perhaps Jesus saw through to Zacchaeus’ pain in life, saw whatever it was that caused him to become a collaborator with Rome, and perhaps named that pain for what it was. Zacchaeus’ salvation, though, came in the form of giving to the poor and making restitution for anything that he had cheated other people of. Was his reconciliation with his people complete at that moment? No, probably not. But by committing to doing this, Zacchaeus had just been freed of whatever it was that was binding him; his horizon had been made wide again, and new possibilities had opened up before him. And it was the fact that Jesus came to be a guest at his house—deeming Zacchaeus worthy of hosting him and giving him back some of his dignity–that enacted that salvation for him. And salvation came to Zacchaeus that day and not in some distant future when he died.
What does salvation look like today? What does it mean for us to be set free, to have our horizons broadened? Well, getting back to the opening question, young people are not asking, “What must I do to be saved?” That is a very individualistic question, and one thing that millennials are not, as a whole, is individualistic. From a young age now, people are taught how to work in groups. In fact, the “group work syndrome” goes all the way to grad school—group work got very, very wearisome when I was in seminary. So, what Dr. Inskeep told us is that young people today are asking, “What must we do to be saved?” They are looking at all of the societal problems that are out there: student loan debt skyrocketing with little hope of getting a good job to be able to pay it off; the bitterness and divisiveness of our politics; the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, as examples, and the question they are asking is, “What must we as a society do to be saved?” They’re not so much interested in the question of heaven, and they’ve had enough of people who say they are Christian telling them they’re not going to heaven if they don’t behave in a certain way. They want to see salvation now, just as Zacchaeus did, and not in some distant future.
So how do we as a church need to reform in order to meet people where they are right now? How can we help people see their salvation now, as Zacchaeus saw his salvation when he met Jesus? How can we help people in our community see Jesus active among us?
The first thing I would like to suggest is that we listen, and really listen, to our young people. There’s been a meme going around on Facebook lately that says that the problem with our communication today is that we don’t listen to hear the other person’s point of view and try to understand it, but that we listen in order to reply. As much as I generally don’t like Facebook memes, there is some truth to this one. Have we just been saying amongst ourselves, “Oh, kids these days!” and throwing up our hands in despair? Or have we truly been listening and trying to understand their point of view? Let’s ask them what they think about Christians and about church, and then listen to understand, not listen to reply. We may have some repenting to do. One thing that I heard on the Presiding Bishop’s webcast this week from a millennial panelist is that young people question everything; they don’t do something simply because that’s the way it’s always been done, or that’s the way their parents did it. Maybe it’s time that we practice speaking about why we come to worship on Sundays and what we think worship is all about.
Besides listening to young people and what they think, we as a congregation need to be out and visible in the community. The theory used to be the saying made famous from the old baseball movie, “Field of Dreams”: build it and they will come. Now congregations all over the country who bought into that theory have large buildings that they can’t figure out how to pay for, because people didn’t come. No, we as a congregation need to go to where people are at. We have several people here who were members of the Kiwanis chapter in Powell that just closed. The loss of that chapter is going to leave a gap in Powell; most of us know that Kiwanis did lots of good things for the children in this town. We here at Hope can find ways to step into the gap. For example, we could organize a day of service at the Boys and Girls Club, helping them with whatever needs their property has. This is one way that we could help people here in Powell see Jesus among them, and I’m sure there are many more ways that we can come up with.
Reformation is not a one-time historical event, although it is good to commemorate the Reformation Martin Luther started and learn more about it. Reformation is always going on in the church. Is it always comfortable? No, most of the time it is not, because it involves change, and none of us like change very much. But, we are in the midst of another great “rummage sale,” and we cannot continue to do things the way we have always done them. The Holy Spirit is working great changes in our midst, and challenging us to find new ways to see Jesus at work among us. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus was so life-changing that he responded to that free grace by giving away half of his possessions and promising to restore four times what he had cheated people out of. That’s a major lifestyle change, folks. And the church needs to have that major lifestyle change as well, both our local congregation of Hope and the church at large. How will we respond to the call of the Holy Spirit to show the people around us that today, salvation has come? How will our reformation be so visible that people will sit up and take notice and say, “God is at work among the people of Hope Lutheran!”? Will people be able to see Jesus through us? The answer is up to us. Let’s take a moment now to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Lord God, you have called us to be a reforming church. We pray now for the courage to acknowledge the sins of our past and to repent of them. We pray that you would send your Holy Spirit upon us now to guide us, and to show us the way forward, so that the people of Powell would see Jesus through our witness both in word and deed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.