Proper 26C 10/30/16
Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4 Psalm 119.137-144 Stewardship Testimonial Luke 19.1-10
This story from Luke always makes me laugh. I can just picture Zacchaeus walking through the packed crowd, pausing here and there to lift up to his tip toes and crane his neck or hop up and down trying to see over the sea of heads. Garnering the occasional dirty look as he pushed his way through the gathering mass of people.
I imagine that he was beginning to get discouraged. The shortest kid in my class every year growing up, I can feel his pain. Seeing what was going on at parades or concerts or other events was always hard. But, then, he comes up with a genius plan: Zacchaeus runs ahead and finds a sycamore tree along the route. This is the part of the story that always makes me laugh. After all, it’s not every day you see a grown man climbing a tree!
Now, up to this point, this story seems to be nothing more than a curious little anecdote. The type of story you might share with friends and family around the dinner table after returning from a trip- of the funny little man you saw climbing a tree. But, then, Jesus looks up. And this simple act of seeing changes everything. Jesus looks and he loves. And this simple act of loving changes Zacchaeus. It is this simple act of looking up with love, at a silly little man crouched in a tree, that initiates Zacchaeus’ conversion.
Conversion. Although it simply means ‘to turn around,’ it is a word that represents an experience that is as infinitely complex and diverse as the human population. However, I think there are a few central truths that are helpful to keep in mind as we think about conversion from our Christian perspective.
1. It is God who converts us.
2. Conversion is a life long process of transformation.
3. There are two aspects of conversion: personal and communal.
Not being particularly self-disciplined myself, I’m always quite relieved to remember this first truth. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot transform ourselves through desire or resolution or determination. And it is not simply a matter of learning the right beliefs or the right answers. That being said, we can open ourselves to the process of conversion. ‘And, how do I do that?’ you might ask. By seeking to deepen your relationship with God. By stepping outside of yourself to gain a new perspective. By pausing to look for God.
For Zacchaeus, it was the simple act of climbing a tree. He literally gained a new perspective- the height he needed to see Jesus over the sea of people. For you, the tree is more likely to be metaphorical. It might be trying out a new prayer practice- one that you’ve heard about or perhaps got a taste of at the Quiet Day yesterday/ this morning. It might be a new way of offering your gifts to the community. It might be seeking God in nature or in physical activity or any one of the infinite ways of growing in your relationship with God. And, because conversion is a life long process of turning to God, it is likely that you’ve already climbed a few trees – being here, in community, to celebrate the Eucharist, for example. And chances are, there will be a good deal of tree climbing ahead of you, as well.
However, it seems to be the tendency (at least for me) to mainly focus on the personal nature of conversion. It can be easy to neglect the communal piece. This neglect is particularly highlighted in our current political climate. Over the course of my own lifetime, I’ve observed a distinct trend in the nature of political discourse, especially with each new presidential campaign. They have become increasingly focused on sensationalism and less and less centered on aspirational thinking. I have to confess, I find myself feeling increasingly fearful and exhausted and hopeless with each new debate and news report. And, more so now than ever, I find myself wondering what the role of religion is in politics and more specifically what role my faith has in how I choose to use my voice. After all, there’s the whole issue of separation of church and state!
And, then, a voice in the podcast I was listening to this week cried out to me with a statement from Senator John Danforth. (Who, incidentally, is an ordained Episcopal priest in addition to serving 3 terms as US Senator from Missouri.)
“If there was a Christian agenda for politics, what should it be? I, for one, cannot be certain. Then one might ask, ‘What does faith bring to politics if not an agenda?’ For me, it brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal. It leavens the competing self interests of politics with the yeast of the Love Commandment, but it seldom fulfills the Love Commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.”1
Faith brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal.
Faith makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.
In our political discourse as a nation, as communities, and as individuals, we seem to be forgetting that we are not the custodians of God’s politics. Conversations in the public sphere are quick to assume bad faith in the adversary. We tend to surround ourselves with homogenized communities where it isn’t necessary to respect and continue to live with people with whom we disagree. A quick click of a button deletes anyone who posts an opinion or statement I don’t like.
1 “David Brooks and E.J. Dionne- Sinfulness, Hopefulness, and the Possibility of Politics”. On Being with Krista Tippett. Podcast audio, Oct. 20, 2016.
We also tend to forget that listening is just as important as speaking. I remember sitting with my brother at our church’s annual strawberry social one year. I was quietly enjoying ice cream, strawberries, and shortbread soaking in a beautiful summer day, when I received a sharp elbow to the ribs. “Are you listening to this?” my brother asked indicating a group of parish grandmothers sitting at the table with us. So, I began paying attention to their conversation. They were each so focused on telling their own stories of grandchildren and daily life, too busy thinking what they wanted to say and crouched to pounce on the next opportunity to speak, that they weren’t actually listening to anything anyone else was saying. It’s one of the most disjointed ‘conversations’ I’d heard in my life- jumping to a new topic with each new voice. This memory resurfaced these past weeks as I watched candidates interrupt, hog the mic, and speak over each other to make their voices heard in the debates.
We seem to have forgotten that ‘conversation’- meaning ‘to turn together’- comes from the same root as ‘conversion.’ We seem to have forgotten that conversion is possible in our political conversations and that God is at the center. We’ve stopped listening to each other and we’ve stopped listening to God.
Zacchaeus is here to remind us today. The rich, chief tax collector was despised in the community. Yet, he chooses to be present in the crowd, he chooses to risk making a spectacle of himself, he chooses to see Jesus. Zacchaeus experiences conversion in the midst of a community that disagrees with him. And, while his conversion is intensely personal, it also has radical implications for his community. He vows to give half of his possessions to the poor. He vows to make incredibly generous restitution to anyone he ever cheated. Zacchaeus’ conversion benefits the poor, the people he’s wronged, and brings salvation to his household.
All because of a simple conversation. It’s a bit deceiving, hearing such prophetic words from both Zacchaeus and Jesus proclaimed in our community as the Gospel. But, this is actually a back-and-forth just between the two men. Jesus isn’t proclaiming his word to the crowd at large, he is engaging Zacchaeus in conversation. A conversation where both seem to listen at leas as much, if not more, than they speak. As a result, Zacchaeus turns and wholeheartedly embrace God. His conversion both changes him immeasurably and overflows into the wider community. Zacchaeus reminds us, that regardless of our individual political leanings, our ongoing conversion can be just as infectious.
So, I ask you: How will you open yourself up to the process of conversion? What tree will you climb?