November 3, 2019
With Understanding Comes Life 21st Pentecost
Psalm 119:137-144 November 3, 2019 Luke 19:1-10
Have you noticed how human beings have a tendency to “pigeonhole” other people? You know, find a little box in which we can neatly place others according to their “category.” I was talking to some pretty savvy high school students 10 or 12 years ago, and I asked them to identify the different groups they saw on campus. Here is a sample of their list (but don’t expect to know what all of them are!): ETK, Stoners, Druggies, Gangster Wanna-Be’s, Skaters, Goths, Emo, Band Kids, Football Players, Jocks, Bros, Cowboys, and Anime’.
Grownups might make a list of people from our social strata using words like “alternative lifestylers,” Preppies, Hippies, Yuppies, Millenials, Generation X. Or, if you are seasoned enough, you might remember Beatniks, Hoboes, Zoot Suits, blue collars, and white collars.
You see, making quick determinations about who people are and what they are about saves us the tedious work of finding out who they truly are! We take a look at the clothes they wear (and maybe some tattoos); we glance at their behaviors; we might catch a phrase that comes out of their mouth, and DING! We know just which pigeonhole to stick them in! Or, we can take another approach.
I love the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Draco Malfoy says to Harry as they get to Hogwarts School, “You’ll soon discover that some wizarding families are better than others. Stick with me. I can help you there.” And Harry replies, “I think I can sort that out on my own, thank you.” What an awesome response! It reminds us that you and I do NOT need to accept the judgments (prejudgments) that other people have made, but we can instead do the difficult work of truly understanding people. Yes, it requires work: listening, delaying judgment, etc, but it can also be a delightful journey of discovery!
Our Scripture readings for today lend us some beautiful light on this subject. The Psalmist is praising God for caring about us, and for giving us understanding. Then, in Luke, we see Jesus reaching past the community’s judgment of Zacchaeus and seeing a child of God! How does this impact you and me and our church? Let’s find out.
Give Me Understanding
The Psalmist cries out to God and begs, “Give me understanding that I may live.” This is asking for the ability to go beyond our normal human tendency to judge others—for the ability to see as God sees; to look beyond the surface—in order that we may truly LIVE. You see, judging others diminishes our lives. Life (as God intended it) is rich with relationships and VARIETY. When you and I listen (even when we might not agree), we foster life-giving understanding. I love the idea in Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” But “living in unity” is not the same as homogeneity, where everyone is all the same. Unity is when very different people still share the same heart, carrying the same image of God.
Just take a look at our little church here. We have a variety of people, reflecting a number of personal preferences regarding worship. Some of us love jazz; others, not so much. Some love the hymns written in the early 1900’s; others, not so much. Some love a traditional service, while others prefer something contemporary. So what we do is offer a little bit of everything, so we’re sure to upset everyone just a little! But what we have here is UNITY—people who have different tastes but share the same heart, carrying the same image of God.
Recognizing God’s Missing Persons
Our Gospel passage alerts us to the fact that our fellowship is missing some people—our family is not complete! As Jesus comes into Jericho, the crowds have amassed and are anxious to see Jesus. Among them is Zacchaeus, and he is too short to see over everyone else. Now, the text tells us that the crowd doesn’t like Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector. It’s quite possible that they crowded together in a way that kept him from seeing Jesus, so he climbed a tree! (This is NOT something that a self-respecting adult would do in that culture!) And when Jesus got to the tree, he recognized a Child of God who was not a welcome part of his community—so he made God’s welcome clear by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s house. The people of Jericho grumbled at this welcome, and said “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” But, guess what?! This sinner was moved to repentance, and Jesus declared that he, too, was a son of Abraham. Did the people of Jericho get the message? I wonder if they knew that one of the Disciples of Jesus was a former tax collector for the Romans (Matthew)?
Friends, our story is full of people who have reached past the barriers, the judgments of the crowd, and have connected with a precious Child of God. You and I have to get past our fears and make an intentional effort to see people as God sees them.
Look around this room. We all see pleasant, amiable people—people who are just like us! Can you think of some people that God might want us to reach out to? Folks who need to come to the Banquet Table of the Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom Banquet
You know, there is a lot of eating in the Gospels! Jesus is criticized for eating with Sinners; he feeds a multitude of people on more than one occasion; he goes to the house of a Pharisee for a meal; and after the resurrection, he eats with the Disciples!
Our communion table is a reminder that our Community gathers around a table, a Table where our needs are met, we are accepted by our community, and we acknowledge that (despite our differences) we are all followers of Christ. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate God’s forgiveness of us; our forgiveness of each other; LOVE that makes us whole.
I want to finish today with a story from Ben Patterson called, Mr. Flip-Flops meets Mr. Brown Suit. “As I preached, I saw Dave standing with arms folded skeptically in the back of our Irvine church, wearing a wetsuit, his hair matted from surfing earlier. Our parking lot was full of Mercedes and BMW’s. Most of our members were professionals. They were casual southern Californians, but their attire was on the nice end of casual. Dave clearly didn’t come from Irvine.
When we met I learned that he’d never been in a church before that day, and had grown up on the streets in a nearby beach town. His van was plastered with bumper stickers advertising Dos Equis and Corona. [Mexican beers] Its interior was green shag carpet, with surfboards stacked on one side and crushed beer cans scattered about. Dave was a total anomaly in our good, pleasant little Christian community. But God wanted to make us better and more pleasant. In the months that followed, Dave was embraced by the church and soon became a Christian. He was with us for years, never dressed in anything more formal than sandals, gym shorts, and a T-shirt that advertised a beer, a raceway, or a surfboard manufacturer. But now he was carrying a Bible. I loved this guy!
One year, the church hosted a two-day conference. It required that our congregation provide beds and breakfast for the 60 pastors who would attend. I asked my people to sign up. Soon every pastor had a host family. At the end of the first day of the conference, cars began arriving to pick up their guests. Soon every pastor was gone except one. He was a little man from a farming town in the central valley of California. He wore thick glasses and a conservative brown suit with a thin dark tie, and he carried a large Bible. Everything about him said rectitude, provinciality, control. He stood smiling and waiting patiently for his host to appear.
I checked the list to see who he had been matched with. It was Dave! Surfer Dave! Dos Equis Dave! I gasped in alarm. This was not a good match at all. For a moment I considered calling Dave to tell him we didn’t need his help after all and checking this man into a local motel. I may have done that if Dave had not at that moment careened into the parking lot, tires squealing. So I had no choice but to introduce them to each other.
Dave swung open the side door of his van. The passenger seat was out because he’d been working on the engine, accessible only from the inside. So the pastor had to sit on the carpet amid the crushed beer cans. I laughed nervously as I helped with his luggage. As they drove off, I envisioned the two enduring the worst night of their lives.
The next morning the host families one by one dropped off the pastors at the church until all were present except—you guessed it—Dave and the conservative little pastor. Just as the meeting was to start, Dave’s van came roaring into the parking lot. Through the glare of the windshield I could see the faces of Dave and the pastor—laughing uproariously! As they got out of the van they exchanged addresses like two kids who’d become best friends at summer camp.
I remember feeling embarrassed about my fear the night before. I’d sold both men short. Wondering at the power of the Holy Spirit to create a near-miraculous bond of love between the least likely people, I realized I’d sold God short too.”
Friends, let’s not sell short the power of God’s love. When God sends us a “Dave” (or anyone else who doesn’t seem to fit in), let’s create a space for them, one that they will recognize as a perfect fit!
Prayer: God, thank you for our wonderful church. And thank you for helping us to understand others better. You have called us as partners in your ministries of grace. Thank you for that privilege! May our lives reflect your Kingdom’s values as we extend a welcome in your name. Amen.