By Bruce G. Epperly
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In one of his songs, Paul Simon portrays the lament of a middle aged, baby boomer:
We work our jobs
Collect our pay
We think we’re gliding down the highway
When, in fact, we’re slip-sliding away.
Perhaps that’s how Zacchaeus felt . . . life was going well . . . he was making a good living . . . he was making enough to have a secure future . . . and he was on the right side of the political-economic divide. His alienation from his fellow Jews was a small matter, compared to the security he was creating for himself and his family. Life was flowing smoothly, economically and professionally, as it should. Zacchaeus was not, as some suggest, a “bad” man—he was just trying to make a good living and to support his family and have a nest egg for his wife and himself and for his old age.
But, somehow Zacchaeus began to feel dissatisfied with his life . . .Walter Brueggemann in his study of the Psalms notes the contrast between “orientation” and “dis-orientation.” Perhaps, Zacchaeus was entering a period of disorientation. Maybe, he began to realize that he needed friends beyond his circle of tax collectors . . . perhaps his Jewish heritage was calling to him; the heritage he had turned his back on in his quest for security . . . that affluence was enough to satisfy his sense of meaning . . . maybe, one of his children asked him, “why don’t people like us? Why do I have to go to a special school?” Perhaps, he was beginning to feel the passage of time – the midlife aches and pains, or perhaps, a friend or child he loved was sick or dying . . . and he was thrown into disorientation . . . he needed something more.
One of our teachers, Robert McAfee Brown, once spoke of “creative dislocation, the suprises of grace.” In his dislocation, Brown could have Zacchaeus could have turned to more bells and whistles, a building project, or alchohol to ease his pain . . . he could have simply disengaged from life . . . zoning out entirely on bread and circuses . . . but he chose to live with the dislocation, to not numb himself, and to allow himself to live with the need for “more” even if he didn’t yet know what it was that he needed to satisfy his quest.
Grace comes to us dramatically, but it also comes to us quietly, slipping through our cracks of individualism, independence, self-righteousness, or denial . . . .and perhaps a quiet grace led him to come to town, to leave the safety and security of his gated community to catch a glimpse of the the rabbi Jesus.
The scripture notes, “he was trying to see who Jesus was.” This was a matter of vision—finding a vantage point to see the teacher, but perhaps more than that, he wanted to see “who Jesus was”—was Jesus the “real thing?” Did Jesus have what he needed to satisfy that quest for “something more,” that quest for something he knew not what?
And, so he climbs a tree . . . Zacchaeus was “short in stature.” This again has a double meaning…he was a “small man” in height, but he was also a “small man” in vision. One of my teachers, Bernard Loomer, spoke of stature as one of the primary religious virtues . . .stature, Loomer noted, involves our ability to embrace the world in its wonder and complexity, to hold in tension many possibilities and conflicting opinions without losing our spiritual center.
Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get perspective . . . all his life, he sought security and economic well-being…he was tunnel-visioned . . . but now he sought a larger viewpoint . . . he sought something more . . . a bigger world than he had previously imagined.
Grace and revelation involves the gentle, and sometimes dramatic, call and response . . . the call of God, we suspect, first came through the sense of disorientation, luring him to consider another way of life, to expereince disatisfaction as the call to something more….but, grace also meets us in the moment . . . when we need to say “yes” to the “more” that calls us forward, when it presents itself to us in the events and encounters of our lives.
The call of grace is abrupt and surprising to Zacchaeus, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house.” Despite the dirty looks, Zacchaeus crawls down from the tree and sees only Jesus . . . Jesus’ call so surprises him that Zacchaeus blurts out a promise he could not have imagined an hour before . . . “I will give the poor half of my possessions, and if I have cheated anyone—and I know I have—I will refund them four-fold.”
Once lost in his wealth, now Zacchaus is saved and found in his newly acquired generosity and the gift of a new perspective. Again, Brueggeman, sees the threefold pattern of the Psalms as . . . orientation, life is stable and good; disorientation, the old ways collapse and no longer work; and new orientation, a new life with a new vision, new values, and a new relationship to the Holy. And, so Zacchaeus, though he didn’t gain of height, suddenly became a man of stature, with a soul bursting forth in love and wisdom.
So, where are we in this story? Are we comfortable in life’s clarity and predictability? Are we certain of the future or totally adrift? Are we content or is there a sense of disatisfaction that is calling us forward to “something more” than we can currently imagine?
I suspect, most of us are a bit disoriented…but this disorientation can be creative and life-changing . . . and Zacchaeus is our guide in moving from disorientation to new orientation . . . his response to the call of disorientation is, first, to listen . . . to pause and listen for God’s voice in his unsettledness . . . Although God does not bring pain into our lives through illness, poverty, or relational alienation, God moves through the events of our lives, pointing us toward new directions, new steps, and new pathways . . . and that can be the source of unsettledness. Second, Zacchaeus, looks for answers . . . he hears that a teacher is coming and makes a commitment to learning about him. Finally, he seeks a larger perspective—he climbs a tree. Our tree might be learning to meditate, practicing the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, beginning to study solid theology, or praying our quest for something more. And, then, when he hears a call, Zacchaus takes a chance, and he responds . . . the trusts the future that is still a mystery, but is willing to change his life, let go of the past, and become a new person, even if it means letting go of the familiar and the secure.
Today, take a moment to reflect on your own sense of unsettledness . . . simply take a breath and listen to your spirit . . . breathe deeply the feelings of uncertainty and unclarity.
Take a moment to imagine the “more” that God is calling you toward…the wisdom of God amid the unsettledness . . . breathe deeply any messages God may be giving you in the your quest for something “more.”
Take a moment to place your unsettledness and your hope in God’s care, and commit yourself today, right now, to saying “yes” and to following when Jesus calls to you.
God is moving in and through the dissonance . . . God is calling you in the insights and intuitions you experience . . . God is calling today, “climb that tree . . . get perspective. . . see a bigger world that I will show you . . . and follow me and I will give you vision and stature and love.”
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor ofDisciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.