Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10
What are we watching for?
What are we trying to see as we stand on our tiptoes, climb up trees and scramble to the front of the crowd? I once served a church where the sight lines were very limited and the table and font sat on the floor of the sanctuary. If you weren’t seated in the front few rows seeing the bread and cup or the baby and water was almost impossible. The good news of this set up, however, was that people leaned forward, craning their necks. Children stood on the pews to catch a glimpse of what was happening. This, to me, is a pretty good posture for worship, and, according to Habakkuk and the Luke story, it is an important posture for our lives if we are to get a glimpse of God at work in our world.
Keeping in mind that it is Reformation Sunday and that God is always doing a new thing, what new thing are we eager to catch a glimpse of in our lives, our congregations, our communities and the world? There is no shortage of gloom and doom and the-sky-is-surely-falling talk as the election draws near. The language is apocalyptic, but not hopeful. There are visions being cast, but not many of them include a discussion of justice for the oppressed, the restoration of sinners, the reconciliation of peoples long divided. We are anticipating something – but what?
What are our greatest hopes? What do we look for from our watch posts? Or on our newsfeeds or Twitter accounts or subject lines or Facebook posts? Too often, we are looking not for God’s vision, but for a vindication of our own plans and preferences. Like those who so often complain about Jesus’ choice of dinner companions, we see broad swaths of people. We read our selective news that big data helps craft to our taste and we confirm all our suspicions about tax collectors, sinners and Samaritans. In short, we see what we are looking for and little else. The challenge for us in our increasingly customized worlds is to find ways to change our perspective so that we might envision something bigger than ourselves and our assumptions.
We need to climb some trees. Go to Jericho. Station ourselves at the rampart. Visit a part of town we’ve never been to before. Attend a church that is different from our own. Eat dinner with folks we wouldn’t normally encounter in our daily routines. Ask someone whose live is very different from our own about her life, hopes, dreams and challenges and then listen.
On this Reformation Sunday we need to be imagine that, in fact, the Spirit may well be doing some serious reforming and those we’ve labeled tax collectors are actually sons and daughters of Abraham.
How might we change our perspective, stand on our tiptoes, scramble up a tree, run to the front or go to the back of the crowd and ask: Where do we see God’s vision? Glimpses of the Kingdom? Jesus coming to town or to dinner? The fruit of repentance and the Spirit being borne?
Did you notice the level of detail in the Luke text for this week? Zacchaeus is named, he is the chief tax collector, he is rich, he is short. Is there any other story where such details are given? We know not just Zacchaeus’ occupation, but his position within it. We know that his occupation has afforded him material wealth. We even get a physical description of him. We know where this exchange takes place: not just in Jericho, but with one party up a tree and Jesus down below. We get a sense of how the crowd feels about Zacchaeus and Jesus’ choice to eat with him. Then we get a detailed description of the results of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus will give half of his possession to the poor. He will pay back four times what he’s stolen. The fruits of his repentance are evident, visible, tangible. Jesus’ declaration isn’t abstract either. Salvation has come. This tax collector is not just a sinner – that category everyone else sees and judges – he is a son of Abraham, too.
On the cusp of entering Jerusalem, Jesus stops and has dinner with the chief tax collector. The grand vision and plan for the redemption of the world comes to someone’s house. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ house and that visit makes all the difference – not just for Zacchaeus, but for the poor and for the particular people who’ve been cheated and exploited.
That’s the thing about the Kingdom of God. We get out of our regular routines to go high and see the sweeping vision, but then we come down to the streets to participate in it with the very people we see in our daily living. Go up to the rampart to see, then write it down, make it plain, so plain that even someone running by can’t miss it. Give away half, return four-fold, make the Kingdom vision and its power to transform undeniable.
Jacques Ellul in his book, “The False Presence of the Kingdom” writes, “Every act of love shown in scripture involves causing a person to come out of his status of anonymity, derived from collectivity, the crowd, etc., in order, through a purely personal relationship, to transform him into a person known and distinguished by his name.”
This exchange with Zacchaeus demonstrates Ellul’s point. The crowd grumbles about Jesus being the guest of “a sinner.” Jesus calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down!” The grand vision is lived out in particular places (Jericho) with particular people (Zacchaeus). This is no less true today.
If we are to catch a glimpse of Jesus in the midst of the chaos of family life and church life and political life and… and… and… then we need to intentionally seek a change of perspective. We need to stand on our tiptoes, climb up the tree, go up the watchtower or take a walk in a neighborhood with which we are unfamiliar. Then we need to discover the names of those we’ve only heretofore known as “sinners” or “tax collectors,” “Samaritans” or “prostitutes,” “evangelicals” or “liberals,” “immigrants” or “red necks,” or “the rich” or “the poor.” The labels and categories are endless. We need to catch a glimpse of Jesus and follow him to those dinner tables where the company is scandalous, but where categories are malleable and knowing people by name inevitable.
The grand narrative of salvation history gets told around tables, Communion tables and dining room tables. Those are the experiences that nurture the fruit of the Spirit that gets borne in the world in undeniable ways.
I read a powerful story this week that bears witness to that truth. Former white supremacist Derek Black’s beliefs and behavior were transformed in large part as a result of a classmate’s invitation to a Shabbat meal. Matthew, the only Orthodox Jew on a small liberal arts campus, had starting having Shabbat meals for friends and acquaintances from a variety of backgrounds. The article reads, “Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. ‘Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,’ Matthew remembered thinking.”
Derek accepts the invitation and keeps going back. Categories of people eventually become those with names. Categories get turned into real people with particular stories. Strangers become friends. The sweeping history of salvation becomes personal and behaviors must change as a result. Couldn’t this be true for us, too?
- Where do you need to go to catch a glimpse of Jesus? How can you change your perspective in order to better see God’s vision?
- What are the labels you use to categorize people? What groups or categories of people do you need to get to know personally, by name?
- Have you ever had a transformative experience around a meal? What happened? Who was there?
- The Luke text for this Sunday has several references that point back to Luke 3 and John the Baptist’s call for repentance. What are the connections you see between these two texts?
- What fruit has been borne in your life or in the life of your congregation as a result of Jesus’ presence in your midst?
- What is it that you are watching for right now?
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