Preached at Alma United Church on November 3, 2013
Text: Luke 19:1-9
I was delighted to meet Marion at presbytery in September and to be asked to take the service today. I have to admit, at first I tried to pass it off to David, not because I don't want to preach here any more, but because I'm trying to step back a bit and let the kids take over. When Marion said that at least one person had asked specifically for me, I had a niggling suspicion that y'all just wanted Allison and her cello (A side note here: she drives now and if you ask her nicely, she may occasionally show up on her own!), but I really was pleased that you folks here at Alma (or at least one of you) wanted ME!
On thinking about this, I recognized how important it really is for me, and every other person alive, to feel valuable. To feel like we belong. Like we contribute something to our group, to our country, to our world.
Our New Testament reading today is one of many readings that could have been used to make this point--it just happened to be today's lectionary reading.
Zaccheus is a tax collector. Not one of those Revenue Canada types that goes by the book and acts within the laws of a democratic country, but the official of a military government who had little oversight and less pay. Not anyone's idea of a good friend, at least not anyone who was poor and trying to make a living.
But underneath the skin of the hardened cheat beats the heart of a human being, and Zaccheus wants what every human who has ever lived wants: love, recognition of his personhood, a chance to grow and change, an opportunity to contribute to society.
Jesus looks up into the tree where Zaccheus has perched, and sees not the cheating bastard, but the human being underneath the mask.
And Jesus calls Zaccheus by name, and tells him that he is to have the honour of hosting dinner for thirteen.
Zaccheus is so grateful for this recognition that he converts on the spot.
Now, I'll have to say that I'd be the first to be a little leery of an on-the-spot conversion, but Jesus does something here that modern pop psychologists are only now beginning to recognize as a valuable strategy for winning an enemy to your cause.
He asks for a favour. Not a huge one, but one that is within the means of Zaccheus.
The psychologists say that asking someone who dislikes you if they can do a small favour for you actually makes them like you more! Why could that be?
Well, it seems that human beings have a built in drive to contribute. If I don't like Heather, and I block her out and never let her do anything the least bit helpful for me, she's not going to say, "Oh, Ruth never bothers me--she's great!" Instead she'll think, "Ruth doesn't like me. She has no use for me!"
We see this in the bible time and time again. God in the Old Testament and God through Jesus in the gospels, asks for the strangest favours from the strangest people.
"Hey there Big Noah! Could you build a boat for me?"
"Hey there, Abraham! Could you do me a favour--take your wife and cattle and go for a bit of a walk?"
"Come on, Moses! Just go up to Pharaoh and ask him! The worst he can say is no, right?"
And Jesus: "Follow me! Andrew, Simon, James, John! Put those nets down--we're going on a tour of the area!"
When you ask them for favours that are within their capabilities, most people don't feel put out, they feel valued.
But we, like the humans of Jesus' time, often lump people into categories, and two of our categories could be described as "People You Can Ask For Help," and "People You Don't Ask For Help."
And our second category often includes folks like Zaccheus, who have done harm to us or to others. Folks like the woman at the well, whose lifestyle is in opposition to our deeply held values. Folks like the illiterate fishermen who work with their hands, not with their minds. Folks like David, the adulterer. Folks like Samuel, who are "just children." Folks like the Good Samaritan, who are not of our ethnic or religious background. Folks like Saul, who actively persecute Folks like us.
We put limits around who we ask for favours, and likewise put limits around who we can or will become friends with. When we do this as Christians or as a church, we also put limits around who we will allow to experience God's saving grace. And we put limits on who we allow to experience their full potential as human beings.
I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She told me that her church has no paid clergy. Rather, every week, three members of the congregation are assigned a topic to speak on. My friend has social anxiety disorder, and her first question when she was checking out the congregation was, "Would I have to do this? Because I don't think I can..."
The answer was, "Yes. Everyone has to do this."
She was given coaching and encouragement, and has spoken to the congregation on a number of occasions. She said that when she talks, everyone goes silent. You can hear a pin drop.
I asked her if this was normal for all the speakers. She told me, "No. Only when I speak."
At a recent conference, she was asked to be the keynote speaker and give a 45 minute talk. She tried over the two months before the conference to prepare for the talk, and every time she finished a draft, she felt God say in her heart, "It's not quite right." She went into the presentation with fifty pages of notes that stayed in her briefcase. She talked until she was finished, then looked at the clock. Exactly forty-five minutes had elapsed.
This woman is so shy that if she came into a United Church and sat at the back, I'm not certain anyone would know her name until about the third or fourth month of her attendance, if then. And she was asked to speak in front of her church. And she discovered a gift she never knew she had, and she's been affirmed as a valued member and speaker by others who have been touched by her stories.
Needless to say, she's a devoted member of that congregation.
Sometimes we get so caught up in either doing things ourselves, or asking our friends and proven allies to help us that we forget that there's a whole world of people out there, waiting to be asked for help. We don't always need to be the givers. We don't need to lecture Zaccheus, we need to involve him in our ministry. We don't need to stone the adulteress, we need to listen to her story and ask her to spread the news. We don't just need to buy fish from the fishermen, and feel good because its sustainably sourced. We need to ask them to preach, to heal, to follow.
Christianity is under siege. We've been told that, and its true. We're no longer the "state religion." People of other religions and no religion are demanding that their voices be heard.
If this siege knocks us out of our privileged way of doing things, then it's quite possibly the second-best thing ever to happen to Christianity after Easter. If we stop relying on sermons and lectures and biblical texts and residential schools to convert the so-called heathens, and instead use those sermons and texts and education to convert ourselves, if we stop giving "charity" and instead ask for equal partnership and help, we'll begin to actually live the life that Jesus called us to two thousand years ago. And the Christian church will once again begin to thrive.