The Pastor’s Pen – November 3, 2019

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‘small man, small church…same, same’

November 3, 2019

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Our scripture today is from Luke’s gospel account in Chapter 19, verses 1-10.  As I have done before, I would like to share the reading in the form of a story…

          And so it was one day, that Jesus was traveling through the ancient city of Jericho.  By this time, he had become a well-known figure throughout the region and crowds of people gathered to listen to him wherever he went.  On this day the crowd was rather large and Jesus was surrounded on all sides as he made his way through the city.  In the crowd there was the usual mix of those who had heard about Jesus and believed that he was really something special, as well as others who didn’t care at all for Jesus’ message and were always on the lookout to try and catch him saying something, anything they could use against him.

          There also was a man in Jericho named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector in the city.  Zacchaeus worked closely with the Roman authorities, paying them for the right to collect taxes for them, and then going out to his fellow Israelites and collecting them…usually, as was the case with tax collectors, with a profit margin which he kept for himself.  As a result of this, Zacchaeus had come to be fairly wealthy, even though as you might imagine, his reputation was very poor in the city…although as we will see, it may not have been fully deserved.  Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus and the more he heard, the more he knew he wanted to find a way to meet him…so when he heard that Jesus was passing through the city, he hurried out to meet him. 

There was one more thing about Zacchaeus…he happened to be a very short little man…and as he approached the edges of the crowd surrounding Jesus the crowd recognized him and made no attempt to allow this one whom they despised to squeeze in between them to get close to Jesus, I imagine even moving closer together so as to block him access…sort of like we do when someone who is pushy is trying to cut into line. Several times Zacchaeus tried to push his way in, but each time he was met with resistance and for a moment it seemed as though he might not even get a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by.

          Suddenly he had an idea, and looking ahead to where he thought Jesus might pass by, he spotted a tall sycamore tree with low hanging branches upon which he might be able to climb.  Casting aside any concern for how he might be laughed at or ridiculed for doing so, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed up high into the tree, finding a perch from which he would be able to see Jesus.

          Now, it was not hard to see which one was Jesus, as everyone’s attention seemed to be focused on him as he made his way closer to the tree in which Zacchaeus was watching from.  And as they got closer, Zacchaeus realized he had chosen a great spot.  It looked as though Jesus was going to pass directly beneath him.  You cannot imagine his surprise however when Jesus stopped suddenly beneath the tree and looked directly up at him.  “Zacchaeus, hurry down”, Jesus said to the surprised little man, “Today is my day to be a guest in your home”. 

Very surprised that Jesus somehow knew his name, Zacchaeus scrambled to get down through the branches as fast as he could, ignoring how undignified he surely appeared in doing so.  As he reached the ground, he made a big show of how grateful he was to meet Jesus and to have him actually coming over to his house for dinner…in fact if you didn’t know better it would be easy to believe the two were old friends from way back.

The circle around Zacchaeus was larger now as the crowd had reluctantly parted way to allow Zacchaeus to come near to Jesus.  Their attitude however, was no less hostile towards this little, and surely to some at least, despised tax collector.  Grumblings could be heard as the crowd made it clear that they felt this was highly inappropriate on the part of Jesus…not only to acknowledge this one who in effect, was in bed with their Roman oppressors, but to actually agree to spend time in the tax collector’s home…showing Zacchaeus way more hospitality and grace than anyone there felt he deserved. 

          The crowd’s discontent seemed to grow and their attitude seemed to be summed up in the words of one particularly angry individual who declared openly, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook…doesn’t he know what a sinner this man is…why would he ever go to his house for dinner?”  Jesus was quiet for a minute as Zacchaeus seemed to react as though these attacks caught him completely by surprise.  A little stunned, Zacchaeus stammered apologetically to Jesus, “But Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.” Jesus looked around at all who were so critical of Zacchaeus and said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” …this is the word of God for the people of God…thanks be to God

          Every couple of weeks I am blessed to have lunch with a close friend and fellow pastor, Fr. Michael Pleckon.  We spend our time together sharing what has happened in our faith lives since we last met, what the Spirit seems to be saying deep in our hearts, and what our, or at least my concerns are.  And this past week was no different, as I shared the story of God’s work in this little church we all call home.

And it is always a blessing to share with Michael, as he is able to really hear me, to hear my occasional doubts and to gently guide and encourage me to keep to that path of doggedly pursuing the voice and call of the Holy Spirit in these often-turbulent times. 

          As I read through the readings for this week, I found myself wanting to share some of the joy I feel at what God seems to be doing here in our own church even in times that are so filled with confusion, lack of understanding, division, and yes, fear of what the not too distant future may hold for us, both as a church, and as individuals.  The self-protective tendency to gloss over hardship or disturbing news or circumstances begins to wear thin when we use it as often as we seem to need to lately.

The words and warnings from our reading from Habakkuk seem particularly relevant in these times as so much of our social and political discourse seems only focused on the next scandal or the next critical obstruction or testimony.  I think that so many have decided to just keep their heads down and to ignore all the noise, hoping that it will all blow over and we can get back to just getting by, having fun…being happy for goodness sake! 

And yet that attitude, while perhaps attractive, seems to forget that God is still God…that the Spirit is working constantly to inspire, challenge, and enable the faithful to find and follow the pathway that leads to the promise of a day when warring shall truly cease, and true and universal justice shall prevail, and when peace shall finally be at hand.  Ignoring or refusing to continue to engage our faith in faithful ways and in ways that imitate Jesus, just as he taught us standing under the tree in which Zacchaeus was perched, may serve only to prolong the agony and confusion so prevalent around us.  The call on our hearts to stand up and be counted has never been sounded more clearly or more persistently then now.

The call to love, to forgive, to sacrifice, and to surrender in faith, such that the power and purpose of God can flow through us and onto the community in which we live continues to invade our comfort, continues to drag us into the public square, continues to implore us to stand up for loving one another, full stop.

But that seems like at the very least a most difficult task, if not altogether something that we may not want to go anywhere near.  After all, who among us wants to get more involved? Who among us doesn’t wish for some return to even recent times past which seemed more normal or at least far more bearable? Who among us is fully ready to leave behind the familiarity of just ‘keeping our heads down’, and instead to stand up and proclaim a better, more ‘Christ-like’ way?  Do we really have to preach and proclaim a new story, do we have to get in people’s faces and tell them that they have it all wrong?

Yes…and no. For we are not to judge anyone’s personal stance on any of this, we are not the ones to judge and to correct…but we do need to stand up and, by our lived example, to show, to demonstrate, and to tell of another way…not only to live in these trying times, but too thrive as those who follow a different teacher, as those who are filled with real joy, as those who demonstrate a peace that truly is beyond understanding. We are called to stand up and be counted as those working to usher in God’s purposes and God’s hopes for us all, by allowing the unconditional and all-encompassing love of our God flow through us, by letting it guide our actions, and inform our speech. 

And that…may not be as hard as you are by now imagining.  My friends, we…you have been blessed…blessed with enough faith to have felt the presence of God in very real ways.  And you have been around long enough to see the hand of God’s Spirit at work in our presence.  And the call upon us all is a call to continue to partner with that same Spirit in doing what we are already doing…

…to continue to serve our community, to continue to reach out to those around us in need, to continue to do the small little things that may seem unimportant at first, but which surely bear the hand-print of the Spirit of grace.  And as I read through our story from Luke, I couldn’t help but hear our own story reflected in the words about the poor little tax collector Zacchaeus.  It goes something like this…

          …and so it was one day that a church in upstate New York found itself in need a direction. found itself, in the most difficult of times, unsure of what God was calling them to do, unsure of how to be effective in their community.  They found themselves knowing they were supposed to love one another, but unsure how to do that, such that it might make a difference that was real and meaningful, both within the church, as well as in the surrounding community.

          They believed in Jesus and somewhere felt that the Holy Spirit was a real force that could actually guide and lead, and so they decided to see if they could find this Jesus…see if they could ask and hear back from the Holy Spirit on just how it was that they were supposed to live out their faith together.  They decided to pray…and then to pray some more…

There was one more thing about this church…they were very, very small.  You see, they had been around for a very long time, but the pace of life and the busyness of everyday life seemed to have passed them by…it seemed as though there were only a few in the community who knew what the church was like, and many, many more who never even gave it a thought.  In fact, the crowd of people who didn’t much care for the church seemed to grow daily as many old churches seemed to become less and less a part of their lives…less and less a part of their conscious routine.

The crowd of those not looking for Jesus at all seemed to get larger and larger as other things began to take everyone’s attention…as jobs and houses, as kids and weekend commitments all competed for attention.   And our poor little church found itself way over on the edge of the crowd…unable to see much, overshadowed almost totally by the noise and distractions that were so much a part of everyone else’s life.

But this little church still believed in Jesus, and had heard that Jesus was still around, although he had not been seen in quite some time.  And they also knew deep down, that if they were going to find him, if they were going to find some direction, it was going to be by the Holy Spirit.  And so it was, that they decided one day to begin to pray together to find a way to get to Jesus…to find a way to look over the top of the crowd of people and traditions that seemed to be blocking their way…they decided to look for Jesus.

          Looking up ahead a ways they saw a tree with low hanging branches…and while the climb looked to be a little risky and perhaps a little dangerous, they ran on ahead by themselves to the base of the old sycamore tree.  Others made fun of them for running…and although it did seem quite undignified, they hiked up their clothing and began the slow ascent up through the low hanging branches.  At first the climb was relatively easy…they had seen this before…in fact there were well worn resting places that looked almost comfortable enough to convince them that they could stop right there…nice and comfortable in the lower branches of that tree…it was obvious others had traveled that way before and had made it into a very nice place…polished branches…nice little windows from which to look out on to the landscape below.  But as our little church thought about it, they realized that their desire to see Jesus clearly was greater than the desire for a comfortable perch, so they pressed on in their quest for a lookout point that was less obscured by so many branches.

          As they continued to climb however, they entered into new territory…into new views and on to different understandings of how was that they were supposed to live out their lives as disciples of this Jesus they all loved.  However, up that high in the tree the branches seemed to be less and less strong, and with each breeze they found themselves swaying a bit back and forth.  There also was not as much evidence that others had ventured to climb that high before.  As they held on tight to the top of the tree they were able to look out and to see over the crowd that had blocked their view from below…from their new vantage point they were able to see more clearly just what it was that Jesus was up to, as he walked the streets and walkways below.

They saw Jesus reaching out to help those truly in need…those who were hungry or whose situations had caused them to struggle or to give up hope.  They saw Jesus making little spaces in the crowd of seemingly uninterested onlookers…making space in the middle of those whose lives were busy and filled to overflowing with the pursuit of so many other things…they saw Jesus over and over again making space in those places to set up a table for people to eat together, sharing a meal, and sharing their stories with one another.

          Up high in the branches of the tree they were able to see that Jesus was looking for people who were willing to really follow him…in fact, the crowd that stayed the closest to him seemed willing to go wherever he went…even into places that seemed dark or confusing at first…or dangerous …or even tedious and boring.  If Jesus was going there, they were going to follow him.  And as the little church looked out from their gently swaying perch, they noticed that Jesus’ pathway seemed to be winding its way ever closer to where they were…a way up high in that sycamore tree.

          And as he drew very near, Jesus suddenly looked right up at them…and with a noticeable smile he called out to the little church, “Come on down from there…I want to see you…today is the day that I want to share a meal with you…hurry on down here where I have set up a table for all of you…come let us be together.”

          Needless to say, the little church was overjoyed to finally see Jesus and to be invited to share a meal together with him.  Ignoring the crowd of those who were only interested in their own things, the little church made its way down through the branches and came near to Jesus, reaching out in service to all who were looking for hope and for help.

It was a glorious day…and the little church who thought they had been looking so hard for Jesus, suddenly realized with deep gratitude that in fact it was Jesus who had been looking for them all along.

          We are all about a good and holy task…let us keep on praying and walking in service of our Lord…amen

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

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