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.
Does anybody else here feel badly for Peter? A disciple who wore his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, Peter is often portrayed as impulsive, sometimes naïve, and awkward. He shows up in all 4 gospels, and, in spite of his faults and flaws, was the rock upon which Jesus founded the church.
Peter was the disciple who was rebuked by Jesus after suggesting that a home could be built for Jesus on the mountaintop, so he could live with Elijah and Moses.
Peter was the one who leaped out of the fishing boat in attempt to walk on water with Jesus.
Peter was the one who was rebuked by Jesus after he blurted out that God should forbid Jesus from being arrested, crucified, and killed…
Peter was the one who was predicted to deny Jesus 3 times before the rooster crowed, and he did just that.
In today’s gospel, Peter is out fishing with some of the other disciples. After a night of fruitless fishing, a stranger from the shore calls out to tell them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. When they do so, they catch so many fish they could hardly haul the net into the boat. And they recognized Jesus in that moment.
Once on the shore, Jesus invites them to have a breakfast of fish and bread. It is the third time Jesus has appeared to his disciples since his resurrection.
And for me, this is where the story starts to get interesting. Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. The first time, when Peter says he loves Jesus, Jesus tells him to feed his lambs. The second time, Peter says he loves Jesus, and Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. The third time, an exasperated Peter says he loves Jesus, and Jesus tells him to feed his sheep.
So the third time Jesus appears to the disciples, he asks the one who denied him three times if he loves him, and Jesus gives Peter 3 similar responses to his declarations of love. That is a lot of 3’s. Not a coincidence.
There is some very good news here: in spite of his very human failings, Jesus chose Peter to be the foundation of the church. After all the awkward rebukes, the blustery outbursts, even after denying Jesus 3 times, Peter is given another chance to be redeemed.
And in today’s scripture, the path to that redemption is found in the feeding and the tending of Jesus’ lambs and sheep. Feeding and tending. Nothing mystical or miraculous about that. Just basic care and concern in making sure that the metaphorical lambs and sheep that follow Jesus are fed and cared for.
I feel kind of badly for Peter, in part because I can see some of myself in him. Perhaps, you can see some of yourselves in him as well. We’ve all had times when our actions and our words were denials of Jesus. We’ve all had times when we blustered or blurted awkwardly about our faith. We’ve all had moments when we just didn’t get what was going on spiritually.
Similarly, we are all being told by Jesus that if we love him, we will feed and tend his lambs and sheep. Although we aren’t Apostles, don’t you think the church is as much dependent upon you and me to survive as it was on Peter at that time?
Would you agree with me that it seems like when the church started to move away from the tending and feeding of the lambs and sheep in need, and instead started to point fingers at who was a sinner and who wasn’t going to heaven that things began to fall apart for the church? In my book, also not a coincidence.
It seems that when the church began to worry more about itself, and it’s own care and feeding, began to act as the judge of who could be forgiven and who could not, that things began to get worse.
If Peter could be forgiven after denying Jesus 3 times at such a critical moment in the story of Jesus’ journey toward resurrection, then all of us, and all our sisters and brothers can be forgiven our own faults and flaws.
But if we are to take seriously the commission to tend and feed the lambs and sheep in need, we don’t ever get to decide who is a sinner, or who gets into heaven, do we?
Tending and feeding. And what will use to feed our sisters and brother in need? Jesus helps us with that too!
The disciples were fishing all night, and didn’t catch a thing. Jesus told them to put down their nets on the other side of their boat. For the most part, in real net fishing, this shouldn’t make a difference. But this is one of those sacred metaphors that can help us on our faith journey: if what we are doing as the church isn’t yielding anything, Jesus tells us to do something different, even if it doesn’t make sense.
Wouldn’t the tending and feeding of the neediest lambs and sheep be easier if our nets were full? Of course it would!
Imagine this: the disciples are fishing all night, and a stranger on the shore shouts out to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. And Peter yells back, but we’ve always fished on this side of the boat!
Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that the various parts of the institution of the Christian Church could act in harmony. Most Christian denominations can’t act in harmony in their own communities. But I am hopeful, optimistic even, that individual faith communities, like ours, can reimagine how to fish. Can take a risk, and can learn to cast our nets on the other side of the boat, so that our nets might be full enough to feed and tend to the lambs and sheep of the world who are in need.
For sheep in our own neighborhood, for lambs across the ocean. But if we ever start to think that the nets are full for our own needs, so that we can eat, survive, and thrive, well, pardon the expression, but we will have missed the boat!
In today’s gospel, the disciples are told to try something different after a night of fishing yielded no fish. So are we.
In today’s gospel, Peter is given the commands to feed and tend Jesus’ lambs and sheep. So are we.
The institution of the church has developed a language for these things. Words to describe what Jesus is suggesting in our sacred scripture for today: evangelism, and mission.
One of these will almost certainly make some of us cringe: evangelism.
The other, mission, is a much more comfortable word.
But my read on today’s scripture says that we will need to do both in order to fulfill Jesus’ instructions: we’ll need to do some things differently in order to tend and feed his lambs and sheep.
Sharing and spreading the good news in ways that are different from how we do it now may lead to an increased ability to feed and tend the sheep and lambs in need.
Let’s not worry about what others have done in the name of evangelism, let’s only worry about how we can find ways to share and spread the good news to those who need it. Acting on our faith in ways that demonstrate to others what we believe. Using all our gifts of generosity, forgiveness, compassion, patience, and awareness.
Some days our nets will still come up empty. But on the days they come up full, we’ll be able to tend and feed many more lambs and sheep, won’t we?
All of this is so highly metaphorical, just as Jesus intended. But when we boil everything down, today’s scripture seems to be telling us that the purpose of the church, our purpose, collectively and individually, is to tend and feed those in need. Nothing metaphorical about hunger, or poverty, or violence, or trauma, or hopelessness, is there?
I say, let’s work together to figure out what we can do differently, what the other side of the boat looks like, and how to cast our nets over there. And then, let’s be prepared to share our resources with those in need, so that our love for Jesus will be shown in the tending and the feeding of his lambs and sheep. Are you with me? Amen.