Monday, November 1, 2010

What Are You Going to Be?

Bible passages appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost include Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; and Luke 19:1-10

It’s not often that we go to church on Hallowe’en. I know, Hallowe’en isn’t until tonight: its name means the evening before All Hallows Day, and All Hallows is a very old name for tomorrow, All Saints Day. On All Saints Day we remember all the people who have helped us see and know and love God, all the people whose examples have hallowed God’s name. We use that very old word in one form of the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be your name.” Our saints have shown us the holiness of God.

So, is anyone here going trick or treating tonight as a saint?

No? Why is that? Isn’t it more fun to pretend that you’re something dangerous and scarey? (What are you going to be, when you go out tonight?)

What happens when you put on a costume? It fills your imagination, doesn’t it? You reach to become something you were not, before you put it on. Your costume invites you to act as if you really were what you want people to believe you’re trying to be.

Now that gets me thinking about Zacchaeus. We learned several things about him in our Gospel today. He was the chief tax collector. He was rich. And he was not a tall man. And a fourth thing: he was not afraid to climb a tree. And a fifth: he wasn’t what people thought he was. A generous man lived behind the mask of a greedy tax collector.

I don’t know whether a chief tax collector wore an official costume as part of his job, but he might as well have. Everyone knew, everyone could see, what Zacchaeus did for a living. He took a lot of their money and handed it over to the hated Roman Empire that controlled their country. He was a ratfink. And nothing he could do would ever pretty that up and make people feel differently about him. You can’t make a leopard change his spots, people would have said about him. He’s definitely a ratfink.

If you’re under the age of eighteen, chances are good that you live in a world, Mondays through Fridays, where unpopular people don’t get treated very well. It doesn’t take much to become unpopular, does it? Look a little different, have a sweet and gentle spirit, have zero interest in sports, have not very much money, and poof, you’re at risk of being unpopular, and made fun of, even bullied. Interestingly, some of those same characteristics can contribute to creating a bully.

And if you’re over the age of eighteen, your world isn’t quite as brutal, but unpopularity is still a curse. There’s always pressure to conform, to do what others do and be like others are. On one hand, we talk a lot about respecting diversity. On the other hand, we tend to stay with our own kind, to not cross lines that separate our kind from other kinds, and to react to personal difference with blame and even hatred.

Zacchaeus was deeply unpopular. And he’s the one Jesus seeks out. Oh, that Jesus: he’s full of surprises!

Put this little story on the stage, and you’ll need a whole bunch of extra’s, people who were hoping, even expecting, that Jesus would come to their houses for dinner. Influential people, professional people, religious people, proper people… “Surely, he’ll want to spend the evening with me!” people. Popular people.

And to help us catch the message even better, St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was short in stature. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not…”

Children will find this easy to appreciate. Here in church, there’s always some bigger-than-life adult in front of you, whom you can’t see through. Go to read a lesson at the lectern, and you have to find a stool to stand on.

Wednesday, I read this Gospel at the eucharist at Sweet Brook Care Center. Every person in that congregation was in a wheelchair. They appreciated Zacchaeus’s perspective.

He took his situation in hand and climbed a sycamore tree. Appreciate what he did: In those days, it was considered undignified for a grown man to run in public, and a man of his importance would never climb a tree. Already unpopular, this man made himself a laughingstock, just to see Jesus.

And Jesus appreciated this. Jesus knew just what he was seeing. Jesus went and stood with the man everyone was ridiculing. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This Jesus is full of surprises! He took that situation and turned it on its head, sending all those self-important people home empty-handed and grumbling, while he instead chose to make one new disciple.

When you listen to what Zacchaeus says to Jesus, you appreciate how God has been working on him for some time. “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor…” Who else ever says that in the Bible? Kings, actually, two or three I can think of, expressing such extravagant love for their queens that they pledge half their kingdom. By his generosity Zacchaeus expresses love and devotion, both to God and to neighbor. He gets it. He shows that he gets what it means to fulfill the law and the prophets.

“And if I have defrauded anyone of anything…”—and there’s a good chance he has; tax collectors in those days earned their reputation—“I will pay back four times as much.”

There’s an example for Wall Street.

An example of holy change, the hallowing of a life, one person’s salvation making life better for many people around him. That’s how righteousness works. No one had ever called Zacchaeus a righteous man, but that’s what he’s becoming through this new attitude to money (and to people), and what Jesus hears and sees is proof of what the prophet Habakkuk said, “The righteous live by their faith.” Faith is being born, faith is being shown, in Zacchaeus’s choices.

If he hadn’t made the choice to take those social risks, climbing that sycamore tree, would he and Jesus have found each other? Making that choice positioned him to grow in faith, in stature, in relationship with God and with his world.

So what kind of climbing and reaching do you need to do? I asked that question in a roomful of Sweet Brook residents, wondering if I wasn’t pushing the story a little too hard.

“Believe in God,” answered Owen from the back row. I told him I thought that was a great answer. “Go to church,” he said, moments later. Owen was on a roll.

In just a few moments, it will be your turn to answer. Pay attention to the baptismal covenant, appreciate how each answer you make to each of these questions I will ask is a tree worth climbing in order to grow in faith, in stature, and in relationship with God and with God’s reign of respect, lovingkindness, peace, and justice in this world.

It isn’t often that we gather in church on Hallowe’en. It isn’t often that one is baptized on Hallowe’en, and today three of our children will take that step. ZoĆ«, Ava, and Benedict will become members of a family larger than their first families. Like their original families, their church family is blessed with people who will help them see and know and love God, people whose examples keep hallowing God’s name, saints we call them.

And as these children grow in their discovery of how God loves them, how Jesus stands with them, how the Spirit of God moves through them in love, they will find power to make choices in their sometimes brutal world, choices that can turn their world upside down and make it turn around right, like choosing to sit at lunch with a child who is alone, and choosing to confront bullying when they see it, and not giving in when the price of popularity is just too much to pay.

When the church was young, many centuries ago, long before there was a Hallowe’en, each newly baptized person would be given a plain white garment to wear. It was meant to remind them that when they were baptized, they put on the Lord Jesus Christ like a magnificent cloak, wearing his love in the world—sort of like Harry Potter’s cloak, but not to make them invisible; rather, to make Jesus’s love visible, the kind of costume that fills the imagination and invites one to become who he or she truly is.