This Sunday is a day of celebration! Heritage Sunday, the conferring of Pastor Emerita status upon Rev. Tracie Martin, and Reformation Sunday.
And we know it’s something special when the bagpipers show up!
In recognizing our shared spiritual heritage in the Reformation movement, we can see how our spiritual forebears helped us get to this place, right here, right now.
Our inheritance comes as much from the Psalmist as it does from the story of Zacchaeus, as it does from Tracie. We have been blessed to be heirs of the Christian tradition rooted in the Jewish tradition, and we have been blessed to have been served over the years by spiritual leaders trained and gifted to bring us God’s Holy Word.
The Reformation led to our shared heritage of 2 sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Our musical heritage is rich and diverse.Today, we hear from the Presbyterian musical heritage rooted in the bagpipes.
In both our gospel lesson and in Joe’s very clever retelling of the Zacchaeus story, we know that Zacchaeus was short. Vertically challenged if you will. And in order to see Jesus, he needed to climb a Sycamore tree.
Using that metaphor, if we, too, found ourselves unable to ‘see’ Jesus, if we too, found ourselves ‘spiritually short’, we would need a Sycamore tree too. Our heritage, both the Presbyterian heritage and the United Church of Christ heritage can be the sycamore tree we use in order to see Jesus.
Zacchaeus was short. Short on vision, short on understanding, but when he was forgiven, he became generous and faithful. Zacchaeus had a shortcoming that prevented him from seeing Jesus, that prevented him from being seen by Jesus. Something inside of him urged him to climb a sycamore tree in order to get above the crowd. That way, he could see what all the fuss was about. But once he got above the crowd, Jesus saw him, and invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.
So if we were to try and put ourselves into this story by Luke, and we were to consider ourselves like Zacchaeus, what might our shortcomings be? What aspects of ourselves get in the way of our seeing Jesus, and what aspects of ourselves get in the way of Jesus seeing us?
It’s not physical characteristics that prevent us from seeing Jesus, it’s spiritual, it’s emotional characteristics.
I know that I am not a very organized person. Although I find ways to compensate for a lack of organizational skills, sometimes I find myself in a pickle because I wasn’t organized. I wonder if I sometimes miss Jesus because I’m lost in the piles on my desk, or because I schedule two meetings at the same time.
But I can climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus more clearly. I can pray, in quiet, in private, just him and me. And when I do that, he can see me, and invite himself into my life, so that I have an opportunity to make changes in my life that will lead to forgiveness.
I don’t need to be forgiven for my disorganized approach to life any more than I need to be forgiven for being bald: my sin, so to speak, is that I allow myself to be hidden from Jesus, that I avoid him in my busyness, and in my scatteredness, so that I don’t have an opportunity to be forgiven, or even make a change.
Zacchaeus was broken in the way he approached the world with his profession, but beautiful in the way he repented.
So once you have identified a shortcoming, something that prevents you from seeing Jesus, the next thing is to identify what your sycamore tree is: what aspect of your spiritual life allows you to get above the chaos, allows you to see Jesus more clearly, allows Jesus to see you, and invite himself into your life?
Self-awareness can be a valuable tool in spiritual growth. It helps us have a realistic view of our whole person, the shortcomings and the skills that we possess that make us who we are. But when in our daily lives are we ever asked to look at ourselves, inside and out, in order to assess what parts of us get in the way of our relationship with Jesus? Not often, until today.
The world we live in is obsessed with physical beauty, financial status, celebrity, and material wealth. If you listen to the radio, watch tv, go to the movies, read a magazine or newspaper, you are bombarded with images and messages that speak to your value as a human being based on your beauty, your wealth, your status.
Sometimes I think it was a gift that I went bald in my early twenties. I was forced to realize at a fairly young age that hair is overrated! Once I stopped worrying about whether I had hair or not, I could get on with growing as a person. Now, others in my position have chosen to get transplants, or wear toupees. But that just wasn’t for me. Once I figured out that hair is a superficial characteristic that is optional, I was free to be me, just as God made me. Our shortcomings aren’t our physical flaws, our shortcomings are the unhealthy ways we respond to traumas in our lives. Our shortcomings are the things we do to avoid contact with Jesus, and by extension, God.
We hide from Jesus in the crowd when we regularly turn to unhealthy ways of dealing with the challenges of our lives. Ice cream, alcohol, opiates, shopping…tobacco, fast food, caffeine…yelling at others, or giving them the silent treatment, holding a grudge, indulging in what comforts us often prevents us from being seen by Jesus, and prevents us from seeing Jesus.
We have to find a sycamore tree to climb. What is it for you? Church? Prayer? Singing and music? Reading scripture? Helping others in need? Self-awareness helps us see the things that keep us from seeing Jesus. Self-awareness helps us identify the sycamore trees in our lives that help us climb up enough to see and be seen.
Sometime this week, I would ask that you find a quiet moment to yourself. And in the quiet moment, look inside for a shortcoming that gets in the way of you seeing Jesus. Then, just sit with that shortcoming for a few days. And, if you think of it later in the week, find another quiet moment to think about where the sycamore trees are in your life. Pick one sycamore tree to climb, and make yourself visible to Jesus.
When we do that, Jesus will have some words for us. His very presence will inspire us to make changes in our lives that will lead to growth. His forgiveness will prompt us to want to grow into better Christians, better neighbors.
Right now, at this very moment, our shortcomings, our debts, our sins, are forgiven. But will any of us make a faithful gesture of repentance by dedicating a substantial amount of our wealth in response to our forgiveness, in response to the relief we feel at being forgiven? I certainly hope so!
Each of us has a little bit of Zacchaeus in us: No, none of us extorts money from our neighbors, none of us knowingly defrauds people of their hard earned dollars. But each of us is in need of forgiveness, each of us is a little short on vision, short on understanding just what that forgiveness means. Each of us broken too. Unable to see Jesus, and be seen by Jesus unless we climb a sycamore tree. And each of us is beautiful in the eyes of Jesus when he finally does see us. Broken and beautiful. This is the way the Lord has chosen to save us.
And when we can practice self-awareness so that we see what Jesus sees in us, we will grow.
It is clear to me that Jesus intended to share a challenging message of what he hoped would be our response to the good news of our forgiveness. It is clear to me that until we start changing and growing and giving out of our gratitude for our forgiveness, we will only give what we feel we can afford. And if we only give what we feel we can afford, the church cannot survive.
Yes, there are times when we need the church to carry us, when we need the faith community to help us. But if we only receive help and never give help, the church cannot survive.
Jesus has put the story of Zacchaeus before us so that we might consider how we, too, can show our gratitude for the forgiveness he bestows upon us. I hope and pray that we each will find it in our hearts to look inside, find our shortcomings, allow ourselves to be seen by Jesus, and then appreciate our salvation, and to give back in proportion to our appreciation: the future of our church, the future of the church, depends upon it.
Shortcomings and sycamore trees. Our heritage and our inheritance. Symbols of how we can either hide from our savior, or how we can make ourselves visible to him. Let’s be visible.
This morning’s gospel lesson from Luke reminds me of two relatively new phrases I’ve learned in the last few years from Social Media: Humblebrag, and Virtue Signaling.
The first one, the humblebrag, is an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud. It is the opposite of humility, it is false humility.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable went up to the temple to pray. And in his prayers, the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, not like the sinners who are thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors. In his prayer, he shared that he tithed his earnings and fasted two days a week.
He was, in fact, separating himself from his neighbors on the self-professed belief that he was not a sinner. Even worse, it’s as if he was declaring himself righteous, when only God can do that.
The second phrase, virtue signaling, is similar: it is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue.
This, too is exactly what the Pharisee does at the temple: signals his self-professed virtue as being sin-free. His prayer indicates that he believes himself to be better than the others, more faithful than the others, more worthy than the others.
The great irony in all of this is that by humblebragging, by virtue signaling, the Pharisee is, in fact, sinning. By using false humility to show that he is not a sinner, the Pharisee has become a sinner!
The tax collector separates himself from the others too. Unable to look up toward heaven, beating his breast in punishment for his sins, the tax collector doesn’t think he’s worthy, knows himself to be a sinner in need of mercy.
Jesus proclaimed the tax collector who had acknowledged his sins, justified, or forgiven, at the end of the day, and proclaimed the Pharisee unjustified, or unforgiven, leaving us with the ominous phrase: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Now, most of can be forgiven if we post something on Tik Tok, or Reels, or Facebook or Instagram showing off our latest project or recipe, something in which we have some pride…that’s not the problem. The problem is when we start to believe that we’re better than others.
We know, from studying scripture, that Jesus had a particular message for a particular group of people. Although he was instructing his disciples, the message was a pointed lesson for the Pharisees, the leaders of the faith community: don’t get caught up in thinking you’re better than others, or that others are sinners and you aren’t. And don’t think you get to decide whether you are justified in the eyes of God.
And though I can’t identify anyone in my sphere of influence who needs to hear this particular message, I suppose it’s not wasted if I use it as a reminder to myself that Jesus, and God, would prefer that I approach my faith as the tax-collector did: with humility and repentance.
The tax collector showed a level of faith maturity that the Pharisee did not: the ability to acknowledge one’s sins, and the need for God’s forgiveness are evident in the way the tax collector prays.
The self-righteous and judgmental person of power is actually sinning, while the repentant and humble sinner is forgiven of their sins.
A word of caution, for me as much as it is for anyone else: let us be careful that we not judge the Pharisees of the world, lest we find ourselves saying ‘thank God I’m not like those Pharisees, self-righteous humble-bragging virtue signalers!’
Even if we don’t know anyone like this in our immediate circle of friends and family, we can find them everywhere in celebrity circles, politics, anywhere the cult of personality rules.
And we may be tempted to thank God we aren’t like them, we may be tempted to brand them and condemn them and feel a bit of pride that we’ll never be like them.
But I say: let’s resist those impulses.
While humblebragging and virtue signaling are cringey behaviors in social media circles, they take on a more serious weight when they shift into self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
Of course, the growing portion of our modern society that thinks all Christians are humblebraggarts and virtue signalers can be forgiven their error: the most humble and faithful of God’s children are rarely in the spotlight, rarely giving sound-bytes on the local news, rarely posting their humility on social media.
A small fraction of the wider Christian community has highjacked the public image the world sees with their judgments and their pronouncements and their scorn for sinners.
While the majority of God’s faithful Christian children follow Jesus on a humble path, minding their own business, attending to their own sins and their own need for forgiveness, like the tax collector, the images most of the world sees are finger-pointing and name-calling.
I don’t think there is much we can do about that. I think the only thing we can do is to live our faith lives as humbly and as lovingly as we can. The more bold among us might take a stab at calling out the modern-day Pharisees, those that make a point to humblebrag or virtue signal their self-justifications, but for most of us, it’s good to worry less about the blow-hards, and worry more about our own personal relationships with God and our Lord and Savior.
There is a traditional Philippine story called the Story of Two Sons. It goes like this: A queen had two children. As she grew older, she wanted to pass on the monarchy to one of her two children, and make them her heir.
She assembled all the wise people of the land, and called her two children to present themselves. She gave them each 5 pieces of silver and told them: ‘By evening, I want you to have filled up this whole hall. What you fill it with is up to you. You can use the silver pieces if you have to’.
And the wise folk said: ‘This is a good task’.
The older child went off, and came to a field where the farm laborers were harvesting sugar beet, and putting it through a press. The remainder, after pressing, was discarded. So the older child made an arrangement with the head of the laborers to take all the discarded sugar beet and fill the hall with it. When the task was complete, they gave the head of the laborers the five pieces of silver, and told their mother that the task was done. There would be no need for their younger sibling to try. They had filled the hall. But their mother replied, ‘There is still time. We will wait.’
The younger child came back, and asked for the sugar beet remains to be moved out of the hall. They had nothing in their hands but a candle. When the hall was completely empty once more, they carried this candle into the middle of the hall, and lit it. Immediately, the whole hall was filled with light. Light streamed into every remote corner.
And the queen said to the younger child, ‘You shall be my heir. Your sibling has spent five pieces of silver to fill up the hall with useless rubbish. You haven’t used even a single piece of silver, yet you have filled the hall with light. You have filled it with the very thing that our people need above all else.’
When we have some quiet moments, and our thoughts turn to our faith lives, let’s see if we can’t be more like the younger sibling, bringing forth light from a humble candle.
There are plenty of people running around trying to fill the world with useless rubbish and then bragging about what they have accomplished.
It’s ironic that the impulse to humblebrag and virtue signal can often be traced to a person’s fears and anxieties. So their insistence on their superiority is actually based on their fear of being a failure.
It takes faith, trust, and confidence to act humbly and acknowledge our sins before God and our Savior. And it takes even more of the same to simply let the humblebraggers and the virtue signalers do their thing.
Let’s bring our humble candles into the great hall, and fill it with light. Let’s aim to live out our faith lives in humble appreciation for the forgiveness we are feely promised, when we repent of our sins. Amen.