Sunday, October 31, 2010

A tree beside the crowded street

Who really knows whether Zacchaeus ever did what he said he would do?  He seems like an impulsive character—his decision that he must go and get a look at this Jesus who is passing through town must have been made at the last minute, because when he gets there the way is already thronged with people.  He certainly is a man of action—we can picture this short fellow jumping up and down at the back of the crowd, trying and failing to see what’s happening and getting more and more frustrated but also more and more determined.  Looking about he gets an idea—way down the street there he sees a tree.  And he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of him, not just because he is chief of that universally despised class of people, the tax collectors, but also because here he is running through the streets of Jericho and clambering up a sycamore tree like a scared cat.
  So he’s impulsive and devil-may-care and maybe even a little crazy, so when he says that he is going to give half of his money to the poor, and that he will pay back any that he got by fraud or extortion at 400% interest, it’s hard not to ask ourselves whether he ever really did.  It’s hard not to wonder if, when the next day came, and Jesus was gone, or after word got back to Jericho, as it no doubt did, that when Jesus got to Jerusalem not only did he not throw out the Romans and set himself on the throne of his ancestor David, but he was arrested and handed over to the Romans and was crucified as a rebel and a terrorist; maybe after all that, impulsive, who-cares-what-anyone-thinks Zacchaeus changed his mind about what he’d said in the heat of the moment and just went back to doing the same things he’d always done.
Well, maybe he did, but I have a feeling he didn’t, and the reason is this:  Something started to happen to Zacchaeus when he made that decision to leave off his tax-collecting and go see this Jesus of Nazareth people had been talking about.  It was a sudden impulse, kind of out of the blue, and Zacchaeus was used to those—his ability to think on his feet and make spur-of-the-moment decisions was what had made him rich.  But when he got there and found he couldn’t see the man, that impulse didn’t go away, and it didn’t change into something else.  It got stronger and more focused.  That desire became a need, and a driving need at that, and it sent him running through the heat and dust of a warm spring evening in search of a tree to climb.   And when he’d done that, and it worked, and he saw what he’d wanted to, something else happened, something that revealed that the sudden impulse that had  come over him was in fact the turning point of his life and there was going to be no going back.
Because when Jesus got to the sycamore tree he did the last thing in the world that Zacchaeus or anyone else in Jericho that day expected: he stopped.  The crowd suddenly quieted, wondering what was going on.  The great prophet looked up into the tree, and for the first time people noticed that lying, cheating rich little tax collector up in the branches like a monkey.  And Jesus spoke, and the first word out of his mouth was his name: “Zacchaeus—hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  He spoke his name as if they were old friends, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that he should find him up in a sycamore tree in Jericho.  And before he knows it, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, Zacchaeus is on the ground, smiling and greeting his new friend in welcome.
The gospels are full of accounts of people who need to see Jesus and go to extraordinary lengths to do it: a paralyzed man whose friends tear a hole in the roof to lower him down into the house where Jesus sits, surrounded by the crowd; the woman with a hemorrhage who presses through the crowd just to touch the hem of his robe in the hope that that will heal her.  These are wonderful stories, but none of these characters are drawn quite like Zacchaeus, and in none of them do we learn their names.  And the only miracle that Jesus does in this story is to recognize him.  The one whose only desire was to see is seen, and in that seeing guilt becomes restitution, greed becomes generosity, and loneliness becomes community.  Zacchaeus must have made good on his promises, and become a faithful disciple of Jesus, a benefactor of the poor and patron of the gospel community—otherwise we would not know his name.
This Sunday we symbolically gather together our community’s intentions of generosity and faithfulness for the coming year and offer them to God. We do this remembering that we looked for Jesus only to be met by him.  We remember that he called us by name, and invited us into friendship with him. And we remember that he told us to make a place for him.  While it is true that he has promised to be there whenever two or three are gathered in his name, it is also important that he have a place to stay, a place where, by his grace, he is visibly and audibly manifest in word and sacrament and in the community of his friends.  Today we stand before him once again and offer our gifts to make this such a place for another year. 
But we do not do this only for ourselves.  Today we remember that Christ came to seek out and save the lost, and so we pledge ourselves to make this a place where he is served in the poor, whom he loved.  And we declare our intention to make this a welcoming house, a place that people look to when the desire comes over them to see the Lord, a tree beside the crowded street that others can climb to see him, a place where they can hear him calling them by name, urging them to come down and be friends with him and take him home with them.    Today we testify with our own promises that being found by Jesus Christ makes it possible for people’s live to change, for deceit to give way to sincerity, for sobriety to replace addiction, for giving to take the place of grasping, for gratitude and trust to come in where there was guilt and shame and fear. 
Today we heard St. Paul’s news to the church in Thessalonika that he prays for them, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.”  This being the Eve of the Feast of All Saints’, which we will celebrate next week, we remember those words and dare hope that Paul is, even now, praying the same for us.  We remember Paul and Zacchaeus and all those men and women who were found by Jesus Christ and whose lives were irrevocably changed by the experience.  We remember the extraordinary commitments they made, and we celebrate the grace and power of God, who gave them what they needed so they were able, however haltingly and imperfectly, to accomplish what they had set out to do.  It is because of their faithful witness that we have their names to remember—indeed, it is because of them we that we know the name Jesus.  That, my friends, is the true measure of the contribution they made, and of what we do to carry it on.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Pilgrims

Every so often the Lectionary of assigned readings does me a real favor.  Today is the last opportunity I will have to preach before our annual pledge ingathering next Sunday, and the gospel appointed for today hands me a gift by holding up a shining example of religious observance.  In his parable, Jesus describes just the sort of fellow we need more of in our church, one whose conduct sets him above the greedy, unrighteous, and adulterous people that one finds everywhere nowadays.  He fasts on the Sabbath, and, best of all, he gives ten percent of everything he makes to the temple.  That is why Jesus compares him so favorably with that other fellow, the tax-collector who can only beat on his miserable chest and say—oh…hold on a sec…let me look at that again… “
“this man went down to his home justified rather than the other”…
“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What am I supposed to do with this story?  How am I supposed to impress on all of you the importance of your religious obligations?  How can I convince you of the delightful sense of satisfaction you will get from knowing you have met the Episcopal Church’s official “minimum standard of giving”—the tithe? Quite simply, this story won’t let me speak this way. 
All this late summer and fall we have been following Luke’s account of the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem.  Each step of that journey has taken us further and further away from a God who endorses conventional ideas of religion.  Each step has led us deeper into the mystery of the presence of God in Christ, who upends our fixed ideas of what it means to be a good person, a religious person, a faithful person.  We have heard Jesus say he has come to divide father against son and daughter against mother.  He has berated the Pharisees for tending their livestock on the Sabbath but ignoring the afflicted people in their synagogues, and told them not to invite their friends and relatives to their banquets, but to instead the poor, the disabled, and the blind.  He has illustrated his stories about a radical new kind of holiness with such characters as a dishonest steward who fraudulently makes friends with his master’s debtors and an unjust judge who grudgingly gives in to a widow’s persistent complaining.
 And now, with one more stop to go before he comes to Jerusalem, he asks us to imagine that we are already there, already standing before the temple of the Lord.   There we meet two other pilgrims.  One stands proudly and gives thanks that he is unlike the faithless men and women that surround him on every side.   Unlike that tax collector over there, he lives just the sort of pious life that everyone knows is pleasing to God, and what a privilege and a pleasure it is to be righteous.  But the other cannot bring himself even to enter the inner courts of the temple, for he knows he is impure.  He has regular dealings with unclean people, the Gentiles for whom he gathers tariffs and rents and levies.  He is one who profits from the oppressive economic system that is slowly but surely reducing the subsistence farmers of Palestine to slavery, and destroying the material basis of Jewish independence.  He knows this about himself and it tears him apart inside.   But he has a family to support.  If he did not do this work, another would be right in line to take his place.   His family has lost its own land, and he never apprenticed to a trade, so what is he supposed to do, sell himself into slavery?  He knows these rationalizations by heart, but somehow standing here, outside the dwelling place of the God of his ancestors all he can feel is his weakness and his guilt.  All he can say is “O God, have mercy on me!” 
When it comes to tithing g, I imagine many of us have rationalizations.  I know I do.  I wish I could say that I tithe—it seems to me improper that someone in my position would not.  But with a wife and child and two Masters’ Degrees to pay off, and two older automobiles to maintain, and the cost of housing and food and medicine, and taxes, it’s difficult to see how we could manage it.  I am committed to giving a proportion of my income, to knowing what that portion is, and increasing my giving every year.  I know that it feels right to make that decision independently of our monthly budgeting and to spend that money first, so that God gets the cream off the top and not the crumbs that are left.   I believe in the importance of supporting the church, and in the spiritual benefits of generous giving, and it troubles me that I don’t do more.
I can imagine that there will come a day, maybe not so far off, when we are able to tithe, and when I think about how it will feel I imagine being grateful, and peaceful, and confident, and content.  And there is nothing wrong with accomplishing one’s goals and having good self-esteem.  But Jesus is inviting us to experience something that goes beyond feeling good about ourselves, even the good feeling that comes from doing our religious duty.  Jesus is offering us reconciliation with God.  And he is telling us that God is willing to be reconciled with us even when we do not tithe, or fast.  God is willing to meet us where we are, even when our lives are entangled in unjust economic systems and we are compromised by the choices we have made.  Just as we must not deceive ourselves that we have settled the problem of sin and its effects in our lives simply because we have matched some external yardstick of piety, so we ought not to be satisfied with our excuses.  We don’t have to pile gratuitous guilt upon our heads, but we need to remember that we remain in need of grace and forgiveness, and we never can presume to know where another person stands.
The Greek word that is translated “have mercy on me” in this passage is rare in the New Testament and is only ever applied to God.  It has the connotation of accepting a sacrifice and so allowing atonement to be made for sins.  The tax collector in Luke would have been barred from participating in the sacrifices for sins that took place in the temple, so he could not rely on the approved religious channels to restore him to God’s good favor.   But there is a closely related Greek word that Paul, Luke’s mentor, uses in the Third Chapter of the Letter to the Romans when he writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement* by his blood, effective through faith.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to make the final sacrifice, the turn religious conventions on their head once and for all, and to make God’s reconciling love available to all who put their trust in him, regardless of their past conduct or their ability to give.
 There is, in fact, no amount we can donate to the church that is worth the value of that gift.  So we do what we can, and fall short, and recommit ourselves in gratitude and hope, praying for the justifying mercy that is faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord.   We do not count the cost of following him, but run the race as best we can, propelled by the ecstasy of becoming God’s reconciling love for others.  How we do this in a secular capitalist consumer economy is for each of us to work out as best we can.   Traditional practices like tithing and fasting can actually be useful in this effort, giving us an alternate value system to measure ourselves against.  But the ultimate value is God in Christ, whose justice turns all systems of measurement and economies of salvation upside down, leaving us nothing but faith, hope, and love.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.