Sunday, October 30, 2016

Trying to See Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 30, 2016

Year C, Proper 26: The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Trying to See Jesus
            So, have I mentioned to you that we have a bunch of baptisms coming up?
            It’s true! We have a couple of baptisms next Sunday, when we’ll celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, and a couple more the following Sunday.
            One of the many good lessons I learned from my friend and mentor Lauren Ackland, the recently-retired rector for Grace Church in Madison, is the practice of inviting children to come close when we have a baptism, giving these little people a chance to see, to see the water, to see the candles, to see God at work, to see God bonding with the newest member of the Body of Christ.
            I was reminded of the little kids eagerly straining to see the action at the baptismal font, when I first started reflecting on today’s gospel lesson.
            It’s the second Sunday in a row that we hear a story involving a tax collector.
            If you were here last week you may remember we heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, both praying, though not quite together, in the Jerusalem Temple.
            If you were here you may remember that in first century Israel tax collectors weren’t just disliked the way today many Americans aren’t crazy about the IRS.
            No, the tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the hated Roman occupiers. The tax collectors were traitors who lined their pockets by fleecing their own people.
            So, last week we heard the Pharisee interrupt his prayer of thanksgiving in order to judge the tax collector standing off by himself praying, the sinful tax collector who betrayed his own people by working for the oppressive Romans, the tax collector who must have needed a lot of courage to even just enter the Temple, the tax collector who must have needed a lot of faith to beg the God of Israel for mercy.
            Well, today we meet another tax collector and this one has a name, Zacchaeus, which, ironically enough, comes from the Hebrew word that means “righteous” or “upright” or “justice.”
            But, Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector, which would be bad enough. No, we’re told that he’s a “chief tax collector” and that he’s “rich.”
            And, we know and all the people around him knew that he’s a rich man because he worked for the Romans and took advantage of his own people.
            So, it’s safe to assume that Zacchaeus wasn’t going to win any popularity contests in Jericho.
            But, this traitorous and unlikable and despised man is very eager, maybe even desperate, to get to see who Jesus was.
            We’re not told why he wants to see who Jesus was. Maybe he just heard all the commotion. Or, maybe he had heard from others, maybe even some of the other tax collectors, about this unusual and powerful rabbi from Nazareth who proclaimed a downside-up kingdom in which it’s not the rich but the poor who are truly blessed.
            Maybe he had heard about Jesus, this mysterious teacher and healer who hung out with the wrong kinds of people and who declared in a parable that the sinful tax collector who prayed, who begged for mercy, even the despised tax collector, was not beyond God’s love.
            So, we don’t know why exactly, but for whatever reason or reasons, not very tall and pretty unpopular Zacchaeus climbs up the sycamore tree to see who Jesus was.
            And, Zacchaeus the chief tax collector gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
            Jesus spots the tax collector in the tree and, in his very Jesus-like way, invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, invites himself over to the home of probably the least popular person in the city, knowing that this will drive all of the “righteous” and “upright” people right up the wall.
            Yes, Zacchaeus gets a whole lot more than just a glimpse of Jesus. He’s transformed by Jesus, giving away half of his possessions to the poor and paying back four times worth of what he’s defrauded – and, he doesn’t say that he’ll do this someday (We’ve heard that before, right? Yeah, soon, Jesus, I promise, but first I just have to…).
            No, Zacchaeus says he’s doing these things now – the Greek is in the present tense - Zacchaeus is giving away his wealth, is making amends, right here, right now.
            Zacchaeus got to see who Jesus was – and this corrupt and probably hated man was transformed by the encounter.
            Trying to see Jesus.
            It was hard for short and sinful Zacchaeus to see Jesus and, unfortunately, today it’s hard for a lot of people to see Jesus, too.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because sometimes we think that we’ve done things that are too bad, that somehow we are unworthy, that we’re convinced that we’ll be rejected by the church, rejected by Jesus.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because in our country so often the loudest, most prominent Christians offer a watered-down false gospel while enriching themselves, living large flying around in private jets and living in mansions.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because in our country so often the loudest, most prominent Christians are quick to condemn and so slow to forgive.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many Christians, both leaders and followers, have gotten sucked into our broken and destructive political system, endorsing candidates and parties, demonizing opponents, twisting words and shading the truth, assuming the worst and never extending the benefit of the doubt to the “other side.”
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many of us Christians have retreated behind our church walls, content to be with our own people and care for one another, but really not so interested in welcoming the stranger and not willing to love those of our time who are despised like a first century tax collector.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because we, the Body of Christ in the world, live pretty much like everyone else in the world, no better and sometimes far worse.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many of us haven’t taken seriously our baptismal promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because we, the Body of Christ in the world, have so often hidden him from view.
            We don’t always know why, but the truth is that people are still trying to see Jesus – and are still being transformed by the encounter.
            You all know that I love baptizing people, but I love just as much when we welcome people to our church for the first time, people who are climbing the tree, trying to see who Jesus is.
            In many cases these newcomers are people who had never really been part of the church, who maybe thought because of who or what they are, for whatever reasons, that they wouldn’t be welcome.
            Some are people who had never really been able to see Jesus.
            In some cases these newcomers had been away from the church for years or even decades, people who maybe had been disappointed or even hurt by the church and who weren’t at all sure if they really wanted to be part of this.           
            Walking into a church for the first time is probably harder than climbing a tree.
            But, the amazing thing is, like those of us who’ve been at this a long time, right here at St. Paul’s they have gotten to see Jesus, not perfectly of course, but they have gotten to see Jesus in God’s Word, in the Bread and the Wine, in the loving welcome they’ve often received from our diverse community, and in the work we do out there, feeding and serving and praying for more and more people each week.
            They – we – have seen Jesus.
            And, Jesus, in is very Jesus-like way, has invited himself into their homes, has invited himself into our lives, transforming all of us into more loving and more generous people, truly becoming the Body of Christ, right here and right now.