Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 5/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 20th, 2017
You have been on my mind and in my heart. This has been a difficult week beginning with events in Charlotte, moving through the politicized news, the attack in Barcelona and then the mudslide in Sierra Leone. I can only imagine how hard it was for you to go through this week. Hearing things come out of people’s mouths that you never thought a person in 21st-century America would say. Seeing things with your eyes that you never thought you’d see. Trying to be instruments of peace and healing; trying to stand for what is right and just; trying to be a voice of hope where hope is difficult to find. I wonder if you are weary of the burden you carry.
I’ve been thinking about you and I’ve been praying for you because I do know you; I know the kind of people you are. I know the way that you are careful in how you listen and process and carefully choose words when you respond. I’m reminded of the story of Esther; words from the story of Esther that perhaps everything that you have experienced up until now God has used to prepare you for just such a time as this. But that does not make your calling or your life easy. So I say to you, be courageous and be brave; focus solely on the strength of God’s love; be strong in grace. The apostle Paul got it right; life is hard. The only thing we have that makes a bit of difference is choosing in those moments to be a presence of love. Loving one another changes the worst of situations; it disassembles systems of control and destruction and know that you are not alone as you lead. God is with you. God’s spirit will guide you. Trust God. Trust one another, your church. Pray for one another and encourage one another. You have much wisdom and you are people of great faith. I do believe you have been prepared for such a time as this and that God will strengthen you.
Our text today is an old one that we learned in Sunday school, mostly by singing: Zacchaeus was a wee little man. We stop with the song and we miss the point of the text. I’m going to your house today. I’m going to your house today. End of the song. I think there’s more there. Not that we shouldn’t sing that song with our children. Let them learn that; we will save the rest to teach them when they are a little bit older and they can rebel like we do against the message of this text. We understand this text in the same way that we understand hummingbirds consume eight times their body weight every day. We hear it but we don’t know how to process that because that’s so far outside our realm of experience that we just hear words and they move right on through. We miss the fine nuances of this text and so it doesn’t change our lives. And you know that’s the way you measure whether you are hearing the gospel or not; does it change your life? That’s when you know you have heard the gospel; it changes your life. But you better be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. God changed my life.
From a simple read of the text we know some things about Zacchaeus. We know he is short in comparison to other men. We know he’s in the tax collecting business and he has power over others. We know that he has accumulated wealth. We know he did so by cheating others and we know that people don’t like him and grumble against him and resent his presence in their midst. We put all this together; the picture is not hard to see. We have a man who feels less in comparison to others. So he has dedicated his life to dominating his field. He’s become a man of influence and he does so by rationalizing dishonesty against others. I am not enough so I have to get enough so that I can be enough. He’s going to get what he deserves by cheating his neighbors.
We also know from a simple reading of the text that there is a parade going on. The other men in the community have come out to meet and greet and elbow fight to walk next to this stranger to their town, Jesus. This is in the midst of the shame culture of the Middle East. It’s a lot like the shame culture in America; think high water pants in junior high. You are a conformist because you’re terrified of being called out for what you’re scared of about you. It is like me in this midsection that keeps coming even though I try to stop eating. It’s a genetic gift, but please don’t notice it. It is a shame culture. Some of you are saying: yeah, I got that too. Thanks Dad!
It is a shame culture but in this situation it is a fight going on about who’s got the most power and who can swing the best deal with strangers that come to town and who can make them feel welcome and who can get something out of them and so it’s a fight of elbowing your way up next to the stranger and walking and talking and touring and making them sure to know that you’re the big man in town. Zacchaeus has been shamed. Every one of the men in that community are in competition with one another. Smiles mask gritted teeth. The fear of losing out, the fear of getting behind, the fear of being seen as less, the fear of being labeled as weak and a failure and stupid, the fear of not having enough. This fear fills you with anxiety. The fear simmers and boils and steams and that steam builds pressure and it drives you. It is a fear that also soaks you in a cold sweat. Hard work and smart work and good work and luck only get you so far. You are kind of sure who your friends are as the elbows are moving. The easiest way to form an alliance with someone is to find someone beneath both of you to kick farther down the ladder. Anyone who is different will do.
In this case it is the man who is short. It is an easy way to direct unresolved anger; identify the undesirable, the outsider, you know: better him than you, right? This is power and fear is a shame culture. Just as an aside, we saw this exact situation in this country in the Reconstruction Years following the Civil War. Poor white farmers in the South and poor black farmers in the South in the sharecropping culture really suffered together under money-grubbing policies benefiting rich white people in the South and the North. Historians tell us that poor white farmers and poor black farmers were identical in their situation and if they had united in their efforts they would have been a staggering political power. They very well might have been able to change their situation. But the rich white folk sowed the seeds of racial discord and made it just enough better for the poor white farmers. They said: at least you are not as bad off as those black guys over there. You know, if you make any noise about your situation, things could get a whole lot worse for you. The easiest alliance to form is to find somebody just down the ladder and kick them because they’re different. It’s an easy way to get unresolved anger directed; identify the undesirable, the outsider; better him than you.
I’ve been spending this week pondering if that’s the situation that we are looking at coming to a head, a boil, in Charlottesville, in Boston. One of those young men that they interview seem to be between jobs; seem to not have held much of a job; seem to be unemployed or underemployed. Young men stuck in dead-end jobs; young men stuck in no job; labor has either gone offshore and become highly specialized. What we see in them — I wonder — unresolved anger building to a frothy expression of kicking. We will not be replaced is what they chanted; fear of being replaced.
Eighty-four years ago it happened in the fading days of the Weimar Republic in what became Germany. After years of tremendous struggle trying to make war reparations and dealing with high unemployment and hyperinflation, a whole generation of men became disconnected from their dignity. They became hostile and looking for resolution. They found a voice in one Adolf Hitler who helped them to find a source of blame for their anger. Unbearable pain was transferred onto that which is different. The Jew became the Jewish problem. You have to make sense when you’re angry and you got a scapegoat. The easiest alliance to form is to kick anyone who is down, who is different. Always better if you can find somebody beneath you. It’s an easy way to direct unresolved anger, identify the undesirables, the outsiders; better them than you. That’s exactly what this is about.
Just as an aside, if you want to address racism in this country: deal with the economics of lost humiliated young people who cannot find decent jobs. There is not really a lot of question in my mind about why Jesus said do not be afraid. More than anything else it is because fear drives destructive behavior. Fear is in each of us; it is like a hole in our soul. What will you use to fill the hole in your soul? That was one of Zacchaeus problems. He’s trying to use money as a bandage to fill the hole in his soul and all that money brings to him is filling the hole in his soul. You don’t have to look very far to find a lot of people like Zacchaeus who accumulate wealth by cheating others. They consume like hummingbirds multiple times more than we would ever know what to do with. So how much do you need? When you’re working to get enough, so that you can be enough, so that you can feel safe and big and invincible; how much do you need? Just an estimate; what you think? Actually, I think you know the answer to that question, you can never have enough power and influence that comes with wealth and purchase power and name recognition related to monetary value and conversational sway. You can never have enough to satiate the hunger and quiet your fear.
There is a something else that we know about Zacchaeus from a simple read of the text; it is his other problem. The text tells us he is alone; he has no friends; he’s isolated; he has no conversation partners and we can surmise that he is lonely. If he had a friend or two he never would have climbed the tree and risk being seen which is humiliating, which is embarrassing, a grown man, an adult does not climb a tree. If he is seeing he will be humiliated. A simple friend would’ve done a couple of things for Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus said: hey I got an idea, I’m short, I can’t see Jesus. I think I’m going to climb a Sycamore tree so I can get an eyeball on him. A friend would’ve said: are you out of your head? Are you crazy? You are a grown man. You are going to fall out of that tree. You’re going to land on your head in the dirt and you’re going to die right in front of the strange man walking through our town. Or you are going to be seen by one of those jerks that have been razzing you all these years, which might not kill you but it’s going to make you wish you were dead. A friend might say: hey, let us get a couple of boards together at the market and we will build a little box; put it on the ground right beside me and you can stand on that box and put your hand on my shoulder and then you will be able to see. No one’s going to notice.
Zacchaeus is alone; he has no friends and he is to the point of desperation that overrides fear of embarrassment. He says to himself, screw it; I’m climbing the tree; I don’t care who sees me. He’s been ostracized by his community and he’s trying to fill the hole in his soul by acquiring enough material wealth. Do you have any idea how many lies you have to maintain to be successful at deception? It must’ve been exhausting for him and we don’t have to add anything to the text to know that Zacchaeus bears enough weight to wear down any of us. Jesus sets him free! We don’t know what Jesus said exactly to help Zacchaeus round the corner and let go of his fear, but it was very good, very good; I’m sure. It was exactly what Zacchaeus needed. Maybe when Jesus was walking into Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus said to Jesus yet. Thank you for coming to my house but I know I’m a loser at life and I know God doesn’t like me. Jesus says to him, who told you that? Is that those guys who were walking with me on the street. Are they the ones that told you that God cares about success in the world and monetary wealth, yeah? Then I think Jesus said something like this: all the fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if your clothes are in the latest fashion, there is far more to your inner life and your value than the food you put in your mouth and the outer appearance that you offer to others by the clothes you wear. Look at the ravens, they are free and unfettered and not tied down to a job. They are carefree in the care of God. You count far more in the eyes of God than they do.
Is anyone by fussing in front of the mirror gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t do that, if you worrying can’t do that, then why are you fussing? Walk in the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t worry about their appearance. The ten best dressed men and women in this nation look shabby alongside of them. And if God gives such attention to wildflowers — most of them which will never be seen by others — don’t you think that God will attend to you and take pride in you and do God’s best through you? What I’m trying to do here Zacchaeus is to get you to relax and not be so preoccupied with getting so that you can respond to God giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things. Zacchaeus open youself to God’s way. You will find all of your everyday human needs will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out, God wants to give you the kingdom. Zacchaeus be generous; give to the poor; invest in the bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank that can’t be robbed, a bank that you can count on. It is obvious isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, that’s the place you most want to be and that’s the place you will end up being. I think that’s what Jesus said to Zacchaeus.
Actually, I got those words from back in the 12th chapter of Luke when Jesus was talking about money and fear and what drives a life. And you know what; it works! Zacchaeus gets it; Zacchaeus is set free from his fear and his drives and his cold sweat and in that moment his life feels in balance for the first time. What does he do? Well he does the same thing we all do when our lives are changed; he starts to talk. He says, I will give half of my wealth to the poor. If I have overcharged people I’m going to pay them back four times over. Wow. Zacchaeus hit the nail on the head and this is where I got the idea for what I said before about solving racial division problems. This is one insight this text offers on the way to the point; when you’re living in fear of your neighbor, work out economic inequality; do away with the vast disparity and the isolation brought about by deceptive people on the top. When we stop using money to fill the hole in our soul; then giving becomes easy. Giving becomes an opportunity for us to find joy. Joy is a function of being surprised and in this case, our willingness to be surprised that the life change that our money can bring for others. Look at Zacchaeus, if he does what he says; if he gives have to the poor and pays back four times over, there is going to be nothing to separate him from his neighbors. It will stop being him and them. It stops being us and them. It becomes just us. Use wealth to lift people and much of the conflict will dissipate.
Zacchaeus in that moment saw clearly the way of the kingdom, how to be big in the eyes of God. Something to learn, something to ponder but the story isn’t over yet. This is where we are going to stop today. We are going to sing a hymn and go outside and drink coffee and talk to each other. Make some new friends. Find someone you don’t know and make sure they know how welcome they are here. Be the awesome, generous, gracious people that God has made you to be. Next week we will see what happens to Zacchaeus..