For the past two weeks, I’ve crafted my sermons in light of the election that was coming. I engaged the themes raised by the lectionary texts of the day to deal with the difficulty of an election season that put on wide, celebratory display the racism, sexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, classism, genderism, and xenophobia of our society. Now, in the week post-election, I’m trying to believe what I preached.
In the first sermon, two weeks ago, the lectionary’s Gospel text raised for us the repentance and reformation of the traitorous, swindling tax collector, Zacchaeus. I imagined how he might have presented himself to his fellow Jews living under Roman occupation:
His neighbors all remembered when he applied to the office of chief tax collector. A slick Zacchaeus stood before his fellow countrymen saying, “These other Chief Tax Collectors have made bad deals with the Roman Empire — terrible deals — they’re just awful, awful deals. I’m going to make good deals, huge deals, with the Romans — they’ll be beautiful, beautiful deals, I’m going to make for you.”
He was the worst-case scenario people could imagine. And then the seemingly miraculous occurs: a man of wealth and power built on the backs of his fellow citizens — someone who couldn’t afford any more derision in the eyes of his neighbors — ran ahead of the crowd clamoring around Jesus and climbed a tree. It was undignified for a grown man to run, but to climb up a tree amid the crowd was downright absurd. No man of wealth and position and power would behave such a way in public. This absurd activity is a sign to all who witness it that, just maybe, Zacchaeus has broken the hold that his wealth and power and influence have over him. He is being reformed before their very eyes.
The miracle of repentance and reformation for Zacchaeus looked like the cumbersome influences of wealth and power being shed so that even the worst-case scenario could taste salvation and rejoin community. To Jesus, the miracle of repentance and reformation looked like a rich man — the most unlikely to heed his message, one he had even preached about never making it into the kin-dom — being transformed before his very eyes, moved even to restore all the damage he had done to his neighbors. The miracle of repentance and reformation for the crowds looked like an impossibility, and they were incredulous to believe the reformation that was occurring before their eyes when all they wanted was retribution, grumbling even as he cut the checks and paid them all back what he’d stolen from them.
But that was two weeks ago. Now, it’d be a lot easier to believe the miracle of repentance and reformation was possible for someone like Zacchaeus if he weren’t in the position of chief tax collector.
For last week’s sermon, it was the prophet Haggai speaking to a dejected people returned from exile to a land of devastation, trying to celebrate their harvest feast in the midst of a drought, standing in spitting distance of a Temple-rebuild project that they could barely get off the ground:
Haggai looked into the eyes of a dejected people and pointed to the scaffolds and piles of stone and stacks of lumber and boxes of nails strewn all around and said, “The coming splendor of this house shall be even greater than what it was before, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity [shalom], says the Lord.”
In 520 B.C.E., the Israelites may have wanted a political leader who could rally the people, organize their efforts, and get something done. Some may have even wanted the “Make Jerusalem great again!” candidate. But in the midst of all of their fears and uncertainties and insecurities as a people, during a harvest festival staged in the midst of drought, in the rubble that they were trying to piece together in a Temple rebuild project that just couldn’t get off the ground, what they got was a prophet who spoke a word from the Divine, saying: “Take courage, get to work, for I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
A week ago, not knowing with certainty what Nov. 8 had in store for us, I stood in the pulpit and said:
On Nov. 6, 2016, the eve of a monumental election that will change the course of our country’s history and indelibly shape our political landscape, what we want is a political savior, what we’ve got is a message from the Divine for this very time and place, rooted in the words of Haggai, that says: “Look around you. This is the mess you’ve got. Yet, take courage, get to work, for I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
But that was two weeks ago. Now, it’d be a lot easier to say, “Take courage, do not fear, work,” if the rubble wasn’t piled so high and the mess we’ve made wasn’t quite so great and we could have our political savior and our prophetic word.
And this Sunday, the lectionary offers up in Isaiah and Luke — texts that say: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” And an apocalyptic text from Jesus about destruction and wars and persecutions that ends with, “This will give you an opportunity to testify …by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
And now we all have to figure out what to preach from these texts and the ones that will follow, when Zacchaeus remains the chief tax collector and we wonder whether reformation is even possible and if we’d believe it if we saw it. We’ve got to figure out what is possible to say to hearten and instill courage in one another when the rubble around us is piled so disturbingly high that a rebuild seems nearly impossible. We’ve got to figure out how to live when the impending national festivities feel like they’re taking place in the midst of the spiritual, moral and ethical drought of society.
Right now, in the week post-election, it’s a feat just to believe and say and live what we’ve preached all along.