The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Zacchaeus Effect

Pentecost 23; Proper 26C
Luke 19:1-10

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Zacchaeus was… a wee little man. And a wee little man was he.

You all know the story. We all sang that little song in Sunday School and Children’s Choirs. I would imagine that throughout the church children are learning and reciting that song, even today.

But one of the problems with these most well known stories from the Bible - like this one most certainly is - is that we can find ourselves lost in the familiarity to the degree that we don’t even really hear the story anymore.

I heard the story once, of a man who lived in Denver. Every day, just outside his office window, he could see the most beautiful mountains you could imagine. Through the seasons he could see the new growth in the spring, and the brilliant fall colors, and the first snows beginning to cap the mountains as winter came around.

But it became mundane. Through daily exposure, it became common. Soon, he forgot to look or to recognize the breathtaking beauty that was there before him.

That’s kind of the way the story of Zacchaeus can be for us. We’ve heard it so much, we’ve sung the song… Before long, if we’re not careful, it might begin to just blend in with everything around it. We might begin to miss the breathtaking beauty that is before us.

And the story of Zacchaeus is breathtakingly beautiful.

Throughout the stories of Jesus we learn to expect the unexpected. So much so that when it happens, we almost don’t notice.

Earlier this week I was gathered with the clergy of the Diocese of Newark in our annual Clergy Conference. It’s always a fun time - staying up too late with colleagues and friends, laughing at old stories, and relishing in the beauty of the Poconos. But it’s not just all fun and games - our bishop has made a commitment to try to use these events to expose the clergy of the diocese to some of the leading theological minds in the church.

This year we welcomed Sara Miles. Sara comes from San Francisco where she’s a layperson at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. If you don’t know about St. Gregory’s, it’s an amazing parish with a unique liturgical style - so much so that it’s seen as a kind of tourist destination for Episcopalians traveling to the Bay Area. Every aspect of their worship and service are geared toward the aim of welcoming outsiders. They try to live by their belief that Christ calls us into unexpected company.

Sara has written two books about her experiences of coming to Christianity ten years ago through the community at St. Gregory’s: Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. With us, she talked about a lot of her experiences. What were probably most jarring to the many of the gathered clergy of the diocese were her thoughts about liturgy as it had been shaped by her worshiping community; but, the Zacchaeus effect was in full swing throughout her time with us.

Sara preached a truly radical gospel of full-inclusion. She was preaching to a generally friendly audience - most of us subscribe to that same radical gospel of inclusion, after all. But perhaps we subscribe so much so that we don’t even see it despite its beauty.

The thing about Zacchaeus that we often forget is not just that he was a “wee little man”, but that he was a wretched little man. He was a tax collector. But to get the full picture of what that means, you have to think through it a little further. He was a Jew who collected taxes from other Jews on behalf of the government that oppressed them all. And if that wasn’t enough, he didn’t even collect them fairly. He took exorbitant shares for himself - essentially stealing from his own people.

It’s really not quite enough to say that he was a sinner. He was the lowest of the low; despised by everyone. He was truly hated, and for pretty valid reasons.

In her time with us, Sara said something that stuck with me. While reflecting on her community’s commitment to welcoming everyone she said, “If you want to meet God, sometimes you’re just going to have to sit in the smoking section.”

Zacchaeus was the “smoking section” personified.

In the same way that on that day in Jericho, Jesus was to be found in none other than the home of Zacchaeus, so, too, are we going to have to go to those places where no one wants to be if we want to sit at the feet of Jesus.

But it’s not just about reaching out to the wretched. Sometimes we have to reach in.

There is a degree to which all of us are Zacchaeus. We all have our secret wretchednesses. We all have elements of our souls and our selves that feel broken and misused. It’s in those most undesirable places within myself, that I have found that I am most likely to find Christ living and breathing new life.

But whether it’s within ourselves or in our community at large, it’s not enough to simply trust that Christ is at work in the people and places of brokenness and discomfort. We must go. We must face the brokenness head on. We’ve got to sit in the smoking section if we are to see Christ.

It’s not enough to sit in the pews in church. It’s not enough to sit with our friends. It’s not enough to sit only with those parts of ourselves that make us feel most affirmed and comforted.

If we do, we are susceptible to the Zacchaeus effect. We are in danger of missing the mountains just outside our windows, or the wisdom hiding just under the surface in a story we know too well to hear.

No. We are called to walk with Christ into the heart of the contrast and the discomfort to sit at the table with outcasts and sinners - wherever that may be.

Christ lives in those relationships. Christ lives in brokenness. Christ lives where there had been death.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Praise & Thanksgiving in the face of Fear & Trembling

Pentecost 20; Proper 23C
Luke 17:11-19

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It seems that praise and thanksgiving are hard to come by these days.

And perhaps for good reason.

In recent years our sense of stability about our way of life seems to have been constantly pummeled. Beginning with the terror attacks of 2001, we entered this decade with fear and trembling. Since then, at nearly every turn, our fear and trembling seems to be too-often justified. We’ve found ourselves in the midst of two wars, leading to the death, injury, and mental illnesses of too may of the young women and men of this generation. We have endured a staggering financial crisis that has affected all of us to one degree or another - whether it’s extended unemployment, a lack of access to health care, a lack of access to credit in an economy that practically requires it, or simply from the crisis of confidence that comes from seeing the recession’s more tangible effects in those we care about all around us - we’ve all felt it in one way or another.

And if these crises born out of our own and our neighbors’ human error weren’t enough, a seemingly constant steam of earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes has undergirded this decade of fear and trembling. It begins to feel like everything in the world is stacked against us. We begin to wonder if we will ever climb out of the hole.

In the face of what seems to have become a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give ourselves over to an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

The culture of fear and trembling becomes kind of self-fulfilling. The more we experience it, the more we expect it. The more we expect it, the more we find it in new ways. It’s one of the truths of human experience that we tend to find what we’re looking for, and when we’re accustomed to looking for fear and trembling we’re rarely disappointed.

In the Gospel lesson for today we hear the story of a group of people for whom life has made it hard to see anything other than fear and trembling. We are told that Jesus and his disciples encounter a group of ten lepers.

Leprosy is an interesting designation in biblical literature. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific diagnosis of leprosy as a particular illness that we think of today, but to any number of different kinds of skin conditions - whether they be communicable or not; whether they be life threatening or not. Biblical leprosy could refer to a rash that can be transmitted between people - making it more understandable (though of course no less cruel) that the leper might be ostracized from his or her community. But biblical leprosy might also refer to any other malady of the skin - ailments as benign as eczema or acne.

But whatever the medical diagnosis, the symbolism of biblical leprosy is profound even in our own age: it was something beyond the afflicted person’s control that set them apart. Moreover, that which set them apart was right there on their skin - for all the world to see.

There was no hiding for a leper.

So, it’s really no surprise that most of the lepers didn’t turn back. They had been cast out from society. They had been ostracized and taught through all their social interactions to live their lives with fear and trembling from the margins. And in such a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give oneself over to praise and thanksgiving.

One of the lessons of faith that is oftentimes taught is that when we find ourselves in doubt and lacking faith, we should pray as if our faith is resolute until it is. We find what we are looking for. If we are seeking deeper faith, it will come.

But by the same token, if we are caught in cycles of fear and trembling to such a degree that we have trained ourselves to see only that, the likelihood is that we will be correct.

It’s no wonder that the nine healed lepers never looked back. It’s no wonder that they couldn’t find the words for praise and thanksgiving. Praise and thanksgiving were foreign concepts for these who had been so put upon by society.

The real wonder of this story is not that the nine turned away, but that the one turned back.

The real wonder is that despite the systems of oppression that had hurt this man and taught him to live a life of fear and isolation, he still found a way, nonetheless, to return to the community and to express his praise and thanksgiving for the grace he had received.

We all know that we have plenty of reasons to be afraid. We have plenty of reasons to isolate ourselves. We are the lepers of the biblical heritage. Our experiences as a society through this past decade or so have made us sick and we wear it right out on our skin.

There’s no hiding.

The real challenge is not in being made well: our faith in Christ makes us well.

No, the real challenge is looking past our patterns of fear and celebrating that healing that we have been given.

If we look for fear, we will find it. But if we look for thanksgiving, we will find that, instead.

Our challenge is to look for occasions of thanksgiving. Fear is pounding all around, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. Fear is constantly demanding our attention, but that doesn’t mean that we have to supply it.

Thanksgiving is quieter, but more powerful. It’s usually not pounding, but always present. If we reach out and allow it in, it will always triumph over our every fear.

So practice looking for it. Practice finding gratitude even when fear seems to be the only option. It will draw you in from the solitude, and it will change your life. It will wear right there on your skin for all the world to see. And gratitude is just as contagious as fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

More than enough

Pentecost 19; Proper 22C
Luke 17:5-10

Almighty God, you are always more ready to give more than we either desire or deserve. Give us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ our Savior. Amen.

Those words of the collect today remind me of a story that I heard recently.

A young man was reflecting on his experience of receiving the Holy Communion. At his church, they used a loaf of bread, and each person would come and pinch off a little piece to receive. He had learned through the examples of others that you should pinch off just enough - a tiny piece, only big enough to have a taste, perhaps with the intent of leaving more for others.

It was kind of a self-denial approach to grace. The unintentional lesson was that only a little could be spared for each person if there were to be enough to go around.

For this young man, that lesson seemed counterintuitive to the greater lessons that he was learning by being a part of this worshiping community. He had been taught to appreciate and expect abundance from God, but his community was practicing scarcity.

So one Sunday, as he approached the altar, he resolved that he would not take just a little piece. He wanted to feel in a physical way the fullness that he already felt in his spirit from being a part of that worshiping community.

So he walked up to the minister who was serving, and he took all the bread that his hand could grab. A chunk so big that he couldn’t even finish it all with one bite.

As he told this story he admitted that the first thought that went through his mind was one of panic: Had he taken too much? Was it okay for him to want more than he was expected to take? Would there be enough?

Then he realized the truth: everything that the Christian message teaches us is that there IS enough. We shouldn’t be ashamed about taking too much of the blessings that are offered to us - only about taking too little and failing to trust in the abundance. It is only in our interactions with the world that lie beyond our Christian scope that we learn not to trust in abundance.

This is another side of the same message that we hear throughout the gospel, and again this morning.

The disciples and others had just heard the parable that we heard last week: the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In it, Jesus instructs us to live our lives in a counterproductive way: to share the riches we have with those who are lacking - to even the scales in our lives on earth - so that we may all experience God’s blessings.

Then, in the few verses between that parable and the lesson we read today, the seemingly backwards message continues: Jesus instructs the disciples not to stumble from their righteousness, but even more, if any one does, to offer forgiveness every time it is sought. He says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

It’s in this context of radical generosity - not only of wealth, but also of spirit - that the disciples turn to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!” It’s as if they were saying, “We don’t know that we have it in us to be the people of faith that you are calling us to be!” They weren’t being greedy or trying for self-advancement - they just didn’t know if they were up to the task that was being described to them.

I know I often feel the same way.

There’s a degree to which the Christian vocation is fairly simple: show your love for God by showing your love for God’s creation. But it’s often easier said than done.

When our fellow disciples stumble, it’s easier to be angry than forgiving.

When we see our neighbors lacking, it’s tempting to hoard our good fortune so we won’t face the same fate.

To reject the easy and the tempting in favor of the righteous requires great faith. It requires standing up against everything that the world outside of the faith community teaches - and maybe even against some of the things that the faith community accidentally teaches - and saying, “No. I know another truth.”

The young man who took “too much” bread knew that. He knew that he could trust in the abundance. He knew that the scarcity that he had been taught was only a mirage that obscured the reality of God.

Jesus knew it, too. When the disciples feared that they didn’t have enough, Jesus assured them that they did.

Earlier this weekend my father and I were talking about this text. When I told him what the appointed Gospel lesson was for the day, and about the line that says that faith the size of mustard seed would be enough to uproot the mulberry tree and plant it in the sea, my father’s response was, “Well, I don’t know why I’d want to do that.”

I laughed when he said that, but I think that’s exactly the point.

We may not have the power to perform supernatural miracles, but why do we need to?

We do, on the other hand, have more than enough power through the grace of God to perform miracles of another sort: We have the power to rise up against the erroneous teachings that assail us from nearly every side. We have the power to stand in the face of the world’s cries of scarcity and to proclaim the gospel of abundance that we know. We have the power to share our good fortune. We have the power to recognize forgiveness where there had been only judgment. We have the power to follow Christ, and to share in his example of service.

It may not seem like much.

Indeed, it may not seem like enough.

But it’s easier said than done. And, through the merits and mediation of Christ our Savior, it is more than enough. Amen.