November 17, 2019
Sometimes I feel as if I am just going through the motions. Perhaps you can relate. One day to the next we carry on without thinking much about what we are doing, or why we are doing it. What is important is that we are keeping our bases covered, that we are doing everything that is expected of us.
That is not to say we are unaware of what is going on around us in our neighborhood, our town, the nation, the world. We are informed. We are aware. But are we really self-aware?
I define self-awareness as the capacity to look deeper at things and reflect upon what we are seeing. Like tastebuds on the tongue, self-awareness allows us to thoughtfully savor what we experience.
That last spontaneous act of yours may have taken any number of forms, but in whatever you might have done you were self-aware, you perceived yourself acting in an unfamiliar role. You left work early, put on your most comfortable shoes, and took a nice long walk. You picked up the phone and called a friend you had not spoken to in five years. In those acts you, if only momentarily, glimpsed life in a broader frame. You crossed the boundary line of habit.
Many of us fear spontaneity. I count myself among that number. Spontaneity has consequences. By acting spontaneously we willingly, to use the jargon of the day, operate “outside the box.” Spontaneity forces us to release our grip and let the event, the experience, dictate outcomes. Outcomes become less predictable, or not predictable at all.
Was it a spontaneous act? I think climbing that tree was for Zacchaeus a very spontaneous act. Zacchaeus was a businessperson, a numbers man. He earned his keep reviewing tax records and making collections. Let’s speculate further that what he did for a living was not entirely satisfying intellectually or spiritually. I have him pegged as a man who followed a pretty tight protocol, a tightly self-regulated man who kept a low profile.
Zacchaeus was arguably the most notorious personality in all of Jericho. Chief tax collector was the title. File an income tax return. What is the last thing you want to hear? You certainly don’t want to hear that the IRS audit department is reviewing your return.
We might regard Zacchaeus as the dreaded IRS personified. But what made him even more odious in the eyes of the taxpayer was that he was an appointee of the hated Romans. Zacchaeus was scorned by the Jews as a collaborator and a turncoat. While fear of the man made people civil to his face, that civility was suspended in the conversations that occurred behind his back.
The arrival of a tax bill was deemed a curse levied on a household, and the origin of that curse was directly traceable to Zacchaeus and his Roman overlords. He was a bad guy. Though enjoying the protection of his Roman overlords, they could do nothing to protect him from the ridicule he daily suffered as he went about his work.
It is doubtful that Zacchaeus really enjoyed his work, his earnings offering the barest compensation for his troubles. What he gained financially counted for a loss socially. He was a guy who pretty much was going through the motions, a man numbed to the ridicule he daily suffered, yet laboring under its oppressive weight nonetheless.
A low profile suited Zacchaeus just fine. But one day that would change. As spontaneous acts go this one certainly qualifies. It is not at all difficult to recreate the scene in the mind’s eye. Picture a large crowd jostling each other that they might inch a bit closer to the object of their attention. In that crowd we spot a man, a man short in stature, who has done his best to elbow his way into the crowd only to be repelled time and time again. Yet this man, our friend Zacchaeus, was persistent. Spotting an opportunity he placed a tentative handhold on the side of the tree, and trusting muscles unaccustomed to physical exertion, hoisted himself up. It was a fully spontaneous act, and appearances be damned act. And what an appearance he must have presented.
Dignity and self-respect left on the ground, Zacchaeus did what was necessary to achieve his purpose. And what was his purpose? It was simply to see Jesus, that’s all.
There are times in life when we do the bidding of some inner longing, a repressed desire that claims us. That time had arrived for Zacchaeus. As he climbed up that tree Zacchaeus became self-aware. That he was making a spectacle of himself could not be ignored. Yet how he was perceived, however ridiculous in appearance, really didn’t faze him. You see from his perch there above the crowd Zacchaeus gained a new perspective, and that new perspective, friends, had everything to do with Jesus.
What precisely seeing Jesus did for Zacchaeus we are not given to know. We do know, however, that when Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today,” Zacchaeus was only too ready to oblige. He was self-aware. The effort to see Jesus produced an entirely unexpected result in that man’s life.
The bystanders who witnessed Zacchaeus and Jesus in conversation did not at all like what they saw. Jesus was going to the home of public enemy number one, a sinner. The crowd was indignant, offended. Zacchaeus may or may not have heard their complaints, but in that moment what they said or did really didn’t matter. It was all mere background noise to him. What really mattered was the connection he made with Jesus, and through Jesus to a deeper sense of himself as a result of that meeting.
What others called him, what guilt, what inadequacy he felt, didn’t matter. His experience with Jesus radicalized Zacchaeus. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
There is a moment in the parable of the prodigal son—most of us know that parable—when the prodigal, having frittered away his entire inheritance from his father, has an awakening. The scripture says, “He came to his senses.” Bottom line? Zacchaeus had a similar experience. He became self-aware. He came to his senses.
Have you ever had a time where, after you had been struggling with a big decision, the path suddenly became clear? That’s the kind of experience I’m talking about here. A light went on and the pathway opened.
If we are too locked into our routines that type of clarity is unlikely to come, the path will not open. When I was in my first year of seminary I was about as locked into my studies as anyone might be. It was a Thursday night and I was working on a paper due the next morning. About eight o’clock two of my dorm mates knocked on my door. It was invitation to come downstairs for some socializing. After repeatedly insisting, even aggressively insisting, that I was too busy, I soon realized that the two were not taking no for answer.
What I discovered when I went down was a birthday celebration in my honor, and this was barely two months of being part of that dorm community.
I wish I could report to you that I learned then and there to be more spontaneous, less protective of my time. No, that wasn’t my take away. I still struggle. But even wearing those blinders of mine on, I recognized that the option my friends were offering was liberation, encouragement to become more self-aware and spontaneous.
The knowledge we acquire, the information and experience we collect in living helps us expand our perspective. But Jesus wants to take that process much further by fundamentally reshaping our perspective, a process that can cut across the grain of beliefs and convictions that we hold dear.
For instance, the crowd that witnessed Jesus interaction with Zacchaeus was scandalized that Jesus was willing to accept the hospitality of a stone-cold sinner. They knew their boundaries, what was in and what was out- of- bounds. Keeping company with a notorious sinner was unacceptable.
Jesus constantly was seen keeping company with all the wrong people, and it made the right people, at least in their own minds, extremely uncomfortable.
I have always counted myself among the right people, and I get uncomfortable when Jesus starts messing with my perspective. But, you know, that is exactly what I need. I need Jesus to mess with my perspective, because my perspective is too focused on me and people like me, and what will benefit me and people like me. I need Jesus to confront me.
As I read the gospel of Jesus I don’t see a lot of evidence that Jesus made it an objective of his to reinforce my perspective on the world or cater to my particular prejudices or world view. Quite the opposite, I think that Jesus’ objective is, and always has been, to force me to rethink my perspective and world view, the same applying to Zacchaeus.
We cannot account for the transformation that overtook our friend when he climbed that tree except to say that his encounter with Jesus set his life on a new path.
The lives of some of the true saints of the church, people like the Apostle Paul, and St. Augustine, and in more current times the evangelists Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Graham were the subjects of conversion experiences like the one described in our lesson today. Each of the attained a new level of self-awareness that saw their lives set on a new path.
Your path and mine may not be as clearly marked as the path that opened up for Zacchaeus or the four people I just named. But Christ came into this world to reveal the path that leads to life not just for the few but for you and me and all of God’s children.
Jesus Christ is inviting each of us to accept a life-changing alternative to what this world has to offer. What that means is that we trust him and take seriously, really seriously, the promises he has made us. “Faith [Martin Luther King Jr.] once said is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase.” That is what I am talking about here.
Faith opens us to a deeper level of self-awareness. It is an act of yielding ourselves to a reality greater than ourselves, even when that reality seems far less real and substantial than the realities we confront in day to day living. Don’t hear me say that faith, and the trust which is at its core, is easy. It is not.
Faith is not easy, but friends, take heart, we have an advocate who has made a path for us through the underbrush of doubt and uncertainty that obstructs our passage to faith. His name is Jesus, and he is all in committed to us and the just about perfect future he has prepared for us.
That, my friends, is some good news you can bank on. AMEN
O Christ, our advocate and companion, we pray your blessing upon us as we make this earthly pilgrimage. We pray for strength to meet the challenges that life in this word imposes, praying that you will bear with us when we neglect your counsel and stray off course.
O God, you have created us for union with you, our lives perfected in faithful service. To that great aim we recommit ourselves today. Use us, use all of us, in your service, and where uncertainty about your message exists bring your light and clarity.
O God, even as uncertainty grips our nation, we turn to you as our source of strength and deliverance. These divisive times have exposed great anger among contending factions within our country, the fault lines separating us clearly marked. Grant us wisdom for the living of these days, and a willingness to concede that we sometimes know less than we process to know.
Lord even as we celebrated the dedication and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans on Monday, we know that women and men in our armed forces today continue to face major challenges. Many are undergoing the stress of multiple deployments. We pray your blessing on all who serve, with special emphasis directed to those who are emotionally overwrought and fragile in spirit.
Lord of the ages, we trust in you. Deepen that trust that as we live these days our lives may mature in righteousness. Strengthen us when tempted. Discipline us when we lose our way. In all events be merciful and forbearing, that even as we ourselves are forgiven we may be emboldened to forgive those who have offended us.
O God, fount of all love, daily intercessor, we give thanks for the privilege of worship today, and the companionship of these friends among whom we gather. May we leave this place renewed in spirit, and strengthened to meet whatever challenge may await us in the week ahead. We pray these things in the strong name…