October 30, 2016
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Who is this Jesus? Today’s liturgy, as in every Eucharist, and indeed the Scriptures that have just been read, raise that question. Who is this Jesus we are promising to follow with our life on the line? What does it require of us as we walk this planet for the time we have been given?
Paul, whom we now call St. Paul, and the traditionally assumed writer to the Church in Thessolonika, wasn’t so saintly when attacking the new Jesus movement. In his conversion, however, he discovered a Jesus who rattled his cage and rumbled through the history of his life. He would never be the same again. He was transformed from being a persecuting enemy of the Church to a proclaimer of God’s Good News of inclusion and mercy. We hear Paul today commending the Church for its steadfastness and faith even as it grew in love amid the great difficulties and afflictions of God’s people in his day. My hope for you is that out of the mess of Hurricane Matthew that you too will grow in love for one another and God’s world.
So it is in today’s Gospel we find a Jesus who steps beyond convention according to his religion as a faithful Jew as practiced by some in his day. You might ask how so? He engages a rich tax collector who we know as Zacchaeus. Knowing what we do of tax collectors in ancient Palestine, he likely got rich by skimming off the top of the receipts he garnered from the citizenry. By definition he was one of the unclean.
Yet Jesus dares to engage Zacchaeus who has climbed the tree of curiosity in order to get a better view. In an act that would have shocked Jesus’ circle of acquaintances and even brought him scorn, Jesus invites himself to the home of an unclean broken sinner who many would have assumed was beyond God’s love and mercy. Notice what happens here and what leads to a change in Zacchaeus’ heart! It is not judgment from Jesus, telling Zacchaeus that he better get his act together that caused the transformation and new behavior. It was an act of care, of daring to cross the lines of convention and what was acceptable, meeting with respect a man who heretofore had probably experienced nothing but ostracization. Love called Zacchaeus to a new place, not judgment.
One more time we discover a Jesus who refuses to be contained in rigid, orthodox formulas of doctrinal correctness. He insisted that all are beloved sons and daughters of God, who does not rest in promoting the work of God’s Reign that recognizes that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t mean that we or the people of the world always act out of that truth, but it is why we say bold and wildly crazy things like, “we will respect the dignity of every human being,” and will “work for justice and peace among all people” as our lived response to being disciples.
He is an inconvenient prophet in that way, isn’t he? The people’s experience is that when Jesus entered the scene, a new truth had shown up and they openly struggled with it. This is what the world is to see when you or I show up in the name of Christ, when we bear God’s Good News in Christ not only in our words, but in our example.
The story of the exchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus calls us to our responsibility to bring God’s love to the marginalized and powerless of our world, especially in the midst of the constant barrage of violent and hateful rhetoric infecting us on a daily basis. If we are going to have a voice in the joy and struggle of what it means to be human, of what it means to be the Church in our time, we must remain hungry for a Jesus who can be taken seriously. The God Jesus preached offered liberation and life to those in death’s prison. We must reject any view of Jesus who remains too small, private and disconnected to anything that truly matters.
I had a parishioner in my parish in Southern Virginia who in the early 70’s was outspoken about the overt racism evident in the area. In that day and in that place it was a risky thing to do. Members of the parish told me that Pat’s home, where she lived with her husband, would get pelted with eggs and spray painted epithets too horrible to repeat here appeared on her garage door. When I was her rector in the mid 80’s I heard these stories from others and one day, when visiting Pat, I asked her about those days and why she was motivated to speak out. She said, “Because I promised to follow Jesus.”
In the end, I am less concerned with defining Jesus than I am with experiencing this Jesus, inviting others into that experience as well. I desire to place my trust in the One who was resurrected from the dead and who changes lives and brings hope to the captive, the disenfranchised, the despised, the left out, the refugee, the prisoner, the homeless, the jobless, the sick, the disillusioned, the depressed, all of whom are present right here and right outside this door. Hurricanes and other traumatic events have a way of revealing such people to us rather starkly.
Who is this Jesus we proclaim today? Who is this Jesus we are promising to follow, to whom we are once again giving our lives as he has given his life to us? He affirms our infinite worth, encourages our yearning, honors our questions, and trusts us with our honest doubt. Perhaps most important of all: he forbids our indifference. I cannot get away from him. You cannot get away from him. As with Zacchaeus, Jesus wants to stay at your house today.