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.
I have mentioned before that the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture, seems quite different from the God of the New Testament, or the Christian Scriptures. The difference, many believe, is Jesus. The presence of Jesus on earth not only changed humanity for all time, the presence of Jesus on earth changed God for all time!
Our Hebrew Scripture this morning comes from the prophet Jeremiah, where God used the metaphor of a potter molding and shaping clay to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. This is a classic understanding of one way that God relates to God’s people: God shapes us, and molds us, into the vessels we will become.
God is like the potter, and we are like the clay. And in that scenario, how much control does the clay have in reaching its final shape? Absolutely none. In the Potter and the clay metaphor, God has all the power, God has all the say in what shape the clay will eventually take.
Now, this is in stark contrast with our Gospel lesson from Luke: in this reading, Jesus uses a series of metaphors to describe how the people of God can shape their relationship with him: we can choose Jesus over our family, we can carry our crosses and follow him, we can look ahead to estimate the cost of being a follower of Jesus, and we can calculate how to arrange our resources in order to be successful, and finally, we can choose how to prioritize our lives between acquiring possessions or following Jesus.
What stands out between these two passages for you today? What seems to be the contrast that God is asking us to grasp today? In the first passage, the clay has no say in what it will become. In the second passage, the people of God can choose Jesus over earthly relationships, the people of God can choose to carry a cross and follow Jesus, the people of God can choose to calculate the cost of being a follower of Jesus, and adjust their resources accordingly so that they will be successful, and finally, the people of God can choose how to prioritize their lives between acquiring earthly possessions and following Jesus.
The God of the Old Testament seems to give the people of God little choice. The God of the New Testament seems to give the people of God all of the choice.
If we think about this like we think about the developmental stages of a baby, it begins to make some sense: although a newborn gets fed or changed when they cry, they really don’t have much say in the way things go around the house.
But as a child matures, parents begin to give them a little more say in defining things like the clothes they wear, the color of their room, the music they listen to…until a child reaches their teen years, and they insist that they should be able to make all the important decisions for their life, like hair color, piercings, tattoos, diet, how late they stay out…you know what I mean.
Our faith development is not too different from a child’s development into an adult: early on as Christians, we may not have much say in how we are formed, but as we mature in faith, God gives us more and more control over how we define ourselves as faithful children of God, even to the point where we can even choose not to be faithful anymore. We get to choose whether we even wish to be Christian at all!
To put this in theological terms, the more we mature, the more we can exercise our God-given gift of free-will, even to the point where we choose to no longer follow Jesus.
I don’t believe God punishes people like God was shown to do in the Hebrew scriptures, but I do believe that there are consequences to choosing to acquire material goods over following Jesus. There are consequences to living beyond our means, there are consequences when we fail to carry our own crosses and fail to follow Jesus.
In one of the churches I served, I met a man who had lived a very challenging life: his mother had been a sex worker, he had never known his father, and each of his brothers and sisters had a different father. He rarely attended school, and had spent most of his early years on the streets.
He seemed to have no control over the circumstances of his life. As he aged, he began to make decisions for himself. He found a job, earned money so he could afford an apartment. But without any real parenting, he had difficulties getting along with people, and frequently ended up in jail after getting into bar fights.
He had two children with two different women, but ran away so he didn’t have to pay child support. When he finally settled down when he was hired as a dish washer in a restaurant, and the manager took him under his wing, and began helping him budget, pay his taxes, and generally make good decisions about his life. Things began to get better.
Until the day that he received notice that his wages were being garnished to pay back child support for his two children, both of whom were adults already.
According to the courts, he owed over $100,000.00! See, he had a choice to be responsible for his children, or not; and when it all caught up to him, he wasn’t being punished, he was simply dealing with the consequences of not paying child support for two children for 18 years. He vowed to make good on his debt. But with the child support coming out of his paycheck, he could barely make rent, or buy food. His pain came from knowing that if he wanted to do the right thing now, he was going to have to sacrifice comfort, even necessities, in order to pay off what he rightfully owed. Some days, he would say, it would be so much easier to just run away and find work under the table, so he wouldn’t have to pay his debt.
But he didn’t do that. He continues to work hard, take on extra jobs to pay his debt, one paycheck at a time, even though his life was so much harder than it would have been if he hadn’t picked up that cross.
He realized that he had all the power, he had the free-will to choose how his life would be. He couldn’t choose what the consequence of avoiding child-support for 18 years would be, but he chose to pay his debt. I’m proud of his choice to stand firm and pay his debt, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t easy for him.
On his worst days, he wished he could just disappear. But always, a day or two later, he would remember that he was in charge of his life, and he chose to live it in a way that was different from the way he was raised.
We each have free-will when it comes to the way we live our faith lives. We are not simply lumps of cold, wet clay, unable to have any say in what we are to become. We are not helpless when it comes to the way we live our lives.
We have a choice. We have a gift from God, a will to live the way we choose. But with that choice, comes consequences. We can choose to place Jesus ahead of our earthly relationships. Or not. Either way, there will be consequences. We can choose to carry our own crosses and follow Jesus, or not. Either way, there will be consequences. We can calculate the cost of following Jesus, and adjust our expenses, so to speak, or not. Either way, there will be consequences. And the consequences won’t be a punishment, they will be a natural process of our choice.
Like choosing to run away from child support leads to the natural consequence of having your wages attached until you pay your debt.
How will you exercise your free will today? What will your choices that you make today and tomorrow say to God about the depth of your commitment, the strength of your faith?
Yes, we are still being molded by God, yes we still have less control than we would like, yes, we have free-will, free choice, freedom to follow Jesus, or accept the consequences of not following Jesus.
But at the end of the day, this day, and every day going forward, will you reflect on the many ways you showed God how much you love and appreciate Jesus, by the way you treated others, or will you reflect on the ways you avoided acting as a beloved child of God.
Because we’ll all be reflecting on both ways. We’re human, we’re flawed, and we do things we don’t mean to do, or we mean to do things we never get around to doing…either way, we will incur the consequences of our actions, whether immediate or delayed.
What will you choose to do? Thanks be to God that we have a choice. Amen.