When Salvation Comes
Just exactly how many pairs of black pants do I really need?
A homily by Margaret D. McGee
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, the LORD, the Holy One, speaks to the people of Zion, in words that convey some frustration. Words, in fact, that give the sense of a God who is fed up to the teeth with these people, and with their acts of worship.
“Trample my courts no more,” says the Lord. “…I cannot endure [your] solemn assemblies … Your … appointed festivals my soul hates… I am weary of bearing them…. bringing offerings is futile. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?”
To me, it seems perfectly reasonable for the people to respond by saying, “Well, gee, isn’t this what we’re supposed to do? We showed up here to worship, to be close to you, in your house. So what’s the problem?
The problem, and the solution, are each contained in the passage. “Hear the word of the Lord,” the passage begins, “Listen to the teaching of our God.” The word “teaching” here is translated from the Hebrew word Torah, also translated as the Law.
The Torah is God’s great gift to the Israelites, the Teaching handed down through Moses that establishes a just society, a way of living together in peace and justice—the kingdom of God. And it’s founded on mutual caring and love.
We’re familiar with places in the Gospels where Jesus says that the two greatest laws are to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself, and I always like to remember that he’s not making that stuff up on the spot. Jesus was quoting from scripture, from the Torah.
So in this passage in Isaiah, what’s annoying God isn’t worship itself, but worship without the love of God and neighbor that makes worship meaningful.
“… even though you make many prayers,” says the Lord, “I will not listen; your hands are full of blood…. seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Then comes one of my favorite lines in this passage. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” That is, argue it like arguing a case of law. And though God does seem frustrated with the way things have been going, it turns out that this judge would rather forgive than condemn, if you just show up and plead your case. “Though your sins are like scarlet,” God says, “they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
In other words, it’ll be okay. Just engage with me. Even if you feel like you’re the worst sinner in town, don’t hide. Turn yourself in! Run to me and lay it all out. Things will change—you will change—in ways you can’t imagine.
This morning’s psalm echoes this same message from the other side of the bench, from our side, when the psalmist says, “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. … Then … I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ Then you forgave me … You are my hiding-place;” the psalmist sings to God, “you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.”
And Luke’s gospel echoes this same message in a charming and paradoxical story of someone who does not hide, but runs to the Lord.
In Luke’s story, Jesus is walking along, surrounded by crowds, and Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and a rich man, wants to see him. But Zacchaeus is “short of stature,” so he climbs a sycamore tree to be able to look over the heads of the crowd. Jesus sees and calls up to him, saying, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
All in a flutter, Zacchaeus comes down. Now the people in the crowd are offended by what’s happening, because in their eyes Zacchaeus is a big sinner, someone who does not “defend the orphan” or “plead for the widow,” but, rather, who robs and exploits the whole community. I can easily imagine people in the crowd going, “Hey, Jesus, why invite yourself to this guy’s house? What’s wrong with my house? You and I have a lot more in common with each other than either one of us does with him.”
At which point, Zacchaeus upsets their expectations and preconceived notions about who he is. He says that he will give half of all he has to the poor, and if he’s cheated anyone, he’ll reimburse them four times over. And Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Referring not so much to Zacchaeus’s genealogy as to his relationship with God—like Abraham’s, one of engagement, and maybe argument, and certainly faith.
We preachers don’t get to choose our texts—they get handed to us by the lectionary. And some weeks ago, when I got my assignment and first read this morning’s gospel, it just so happened that Zacchaeus’s words struck a timely chord with me. For months, I’d had a growing sense of being burdened by all the stuff in my life, especially all my clothes, and a growing urge to go through my bulging closets so I could give away what I didn’t need, and maybe have a few extra hangers for a change.
One Sunday, right here in this room, I heard Karen say that at ‘Just Soup’ on Wednesdays, they were going to make donated used clothes available, as well as the soup. That gave me a little nudge, but still I kept putting the job off. It seemed so big. I didn’t want make just another superficial pass down the rack, netting a few items that were easy to give away, but still leaving me with these bloated drawers and closets. I felt guilty about owning the clothes I rarely wore. But, though burdened by stuff and guilt, somehow I couldn’t get my attention on it. Something else was always more urgent.
Then, I read what Zacchaeus said he was going to do, and that 50% figure jumped right off the page at me. Half? Whoa. That’s a high bar. Yet I knew it was my job to grapple with this text, and it felt like old Zacchaeus had thrown down a gauntlet. I may not be ready to give away half of all I have—but could I cut my wardrobe in half? Possibly achievable. I had to admit that, if I made it, I’d still have things to wear.
So, inspired by the chief tax collector, I took it on. Knowing I couldn’t go through everything in one go, I decided to divide the wardrobe into categories and just do a category or two at a time.
For some reason, I started with leggings. I used to wear leggings a lot, don’t anymore, still had a pile of them in a drawer. It was easy to reduce the pile by way more than half, even leaving myself with two pairs, just in case leggings came back for me. Started out feeling pretty good, ahead of the game.
But it didn’t take long before I had to face the heart of my wardrobe—pants, long-sleeved tops—and crash against the rocks of attachment to possessions.
There was this blue fleece sweater! It cost a pretty penny and was still in good shape. I wore it … but I didn’t really like it. Never felt right in it. So why was it so hard to pick it up out of the keeper pile and move it over into the give-away pile? Trying to meet Zacchaeus’s challenge and get to 50%, I grappled with this question, until it dawned on me that I was clinging to that top, in part, because I felt guilty for spending so much money on something that I ended up not liking much.
Well, that’s a stupid reason to hang onto an item that someone else might put to good use. Suddenly, the choice became easy. Ka-boom. Over to the give-away pile. No regrets. And now, this other top I do like can be a keeper.
And so it went, item by item, getting to know my relationship with pieces of clothing, which spilled out into my relationship with my neighbors, my values, my God.
Mysteriously, the task had changed from a tedious chore to a more interesting process of managing goods, not just for me, but for the whole world—the Kingdom of God. It took a few weeks, but eventually, I got through all the categories, all the hangers and drawers. I found that for me, setting a percentage as a goal was a good way to define my intention and measure my progress.
At the same time let me confess that, statistically speaking, I did not quite make it to 50%. Close. In the ballpark. And I feel fine about it. Not guilty. I know what’s in my closet, and I know why it’s there. A bunch of clothes went on to a new life, and I still have stuff to wear.
Who would have thought that discovering just exactly how many pairs of black pants were necessary for my personal sense of well-being (3) could turn into a deeply rewarding spiritual exercise? And yet it did.
I think it’s possible that when Jesus says to Zacchaeus “Today salvation has come to this house,” the salvation he saw coming did not grow out of blind adherence to an arbitrary percentage, but out of what Jesus saw in Zacchaeus’s heart—a true intention. That salvation comes from taking on the issue in the first place, with all one’s heart, facing it, struggling with it, praying over it, arguing it out with God. And in that process finding out who we are, what we value, and how to live in those values. How to live in faith and love in the Kingdom of God.
Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, on October 31, 2010.
Readings for the day:
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12