Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I grew up in a culture that was peppered with prejudice about all sorts of people and people groups. A product of the height of Apartheid, and a white male South African, I was fed a steady dose of all the stereotypes that went into making up our society. It may surprise you that the stereotypes weren’t all about race! Many of them were about other physical features, like, “Never trust anyone whose eyes are too close together“. I do beg your clemency for this bigoted upbringing and would offer as mitigating circumstance that I grew up deprived of “Google”. If I’d had the Internet I could have verified all these misperceptions on Wikipedia. (Yes, that lump on my face is indeed my tongue in my cheek!)

Another of these cultural biases was located around persons of short stature. Short man syndrome or a Napoleon Complex, was used to judge people of less than average height who competed aggressively with those who were taller. Behind the bias lay an unspoken principle: short people should know their place. Interesting that there isn’t a short woman syndrome, are women just expected to be small?

Coming this week to the most famous short man of the gospels, Zacchaeus, I find myself wondering if the short man syndrome was a bias in the days of Jesus? If it was, poor Zaccheaus had to face a double whammy. Short of stature, and also a tribute collector, what a difficult incarnation to carry.

All this nostalgia for the prejudicial upbringing of my past also dredged up a song from my youth. It was written by another short man and performed by his short self and his tall partner. The opening lines were, “When you’re weary , feeling small…

Are you old enough to remember “Bridge over Troubled Water“(YouTube Link) by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? It was 1969, so you may not want to admit to that.

I think those opening lines would have got Zacchaeus’ attention if he had heard the song back in the day. Zacchaeus knew what it was to be weary and also what it was to feel small. In the shame based culture of his time (is there any other kind?) being a tribute collector was tantamount to being a spy and a traitor. The only difference was you were required to perform your treachery in public! Collecting the extorted tribute from the Jewish populace and then handing it over, sans your sizeable administration fee,  to the Roman oppressors would not have endeared this profession to your peers.

I can’t help wondering if the tree climbing that Luke tells us was to get a better view was not also an attempt at concealment and camouflage?

Zacchaeus knew who he was, he also knew what he had done. He saw the shame in the looks his fellow Jericho-ers, including some of his family, gave him as they looked down on him literally and in every way. Zacchaeus was quite happy to be concealed in the sycamore-fig tree that day. To catch a discreet glimpse of the travelling Rabbi, that so many were speaking of.

On the Internet there is a name for people who enter chat rooms and who never participate in the discussion. They are called “Lurkers“. Zacchaeus was a lurker. Drawn to the teacher Jesus, he didn’t believe he had anything to offer and certainly believed he was not worthy to receive anything, so he lurked in the sycamore-fig tree, the very tree that was ironically a symbol of the nation of Israel and of blessing. Knowing what we do now about the outcome of this narrative, the sycamore-fig tree was an inspired choice. Zacchaeus might not have dreamed about the blessing of Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.“, but somehow he knew he had to see Jesus

When I preach on a Sunday I sometimes find myself wondering how many Zacchaeuses are in church, or even reading this blog. People who are drawn by the promise of healing and wholeness from Jesus, but who have experienced too much shame and have been looked down upon just once to many, for them to risk disclosure of their need? They lurk in the back pews, or don’t even attend church, constantly reading blogs like this trying to find some redemption from the harsh judgement they see in the eyes of others. Sadly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.

Here is the good news. Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.

Just one look up the tree of shame and concealment and Jesus encounters the one who is lurking there.

It took me a while before I grasped the irony of the tribute collector hiding in the iconic fig tree of Israel and of blessing. At the risk of totally mixing metaphors, and confusing everyone may I point out that Jesus “the vine of the New Israel” calls Zacchaeus Smallman, to leave the concealment of the laws of shame and blame and also to leave his false blessing of wealth and extortion. He is called to leave that which makes him live in concealment from everyone, and “come down” to take his place as a forgiven son of Abraham.

No longer will Zacchaeus have to lurk up the tree of shame and blame, he will now be able to sit under that tree in the blessing of God. How? Because, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is not merely a story for Zacchaeus. It is a call to each of us as Small-people.

Let us risk climbing from the perches of false guilt caused by prejudicial bias where we have been lurking, and leering at the world.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Wow! Zacchaeus, how you’ve grown! You are taller down here than when you were up the tree.

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Posted in Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

The altitude of a prayerful attitude

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Once again I am reminded how disadvantaged we moderns are when coming to the ancient texts. We live in such a vastly different world with such different worldviews, that our entire third millennium consciousness finds the biblical consciousness almost inaccessible. The disadvantage with this week’s gospel is a challenge for the meeting of the two geographic consciousnesses.

As I have said so often on this blog, we who have seen our planet from the outer limits of our solar system in the image beamed back by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the system in 2003 (see Voyager image here). In Jesus day there wasn’t even the notion of planets! The world was flat, there was a dome of water overhead, held back by God’s providence, and the stars were hung Christmas tree like, from that dome. (See the world in Jesus’ day).

The highest altitude a human could experience at that time was the top of a mountain, which is why most temples were located on mountains or hills. From these vantage points one could find perspective of the world below as well as gaze into the heavens without obstruction.

Having established these challenges for our insights as moderns trying to understand this Lucan narrative, we can now proceed into the text.

Immediately we are struck by the attitude-altitude of the hearers to whom Jesus addresses the parable. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” To these elevated judgers Jesus speaks a parable. As we listen to the parable I invite you to notice the altitude changes in the story. ( I have used the more literal translations of certain Greek words to emphasise the altitude references in the original roots)

“Two men stepped upwards into the sacred place to pray.

The Pharisee, standing towards himself (self focussed and preoccupied with himself?) thanks God that he is not like any other people. He is better than them all.

The tribute collector on the other hand stood far away (from the holy hot spot) and from the shadows did not even look into the heavens, but beat his breast and acknowledged that he had missed the target and pleaded for reconciliation with God.”

“I tell you” says Jesus, “this one stepped down, back home, having been made right with God rather than the other. The one who elevates himself will be made like the lowlands, and the lowlanders will be elevated.

Having noticed the altitudinal and attitudinal location of the two characters of the parable, the question has to be asked., “Why?”

Why this threat of humiliation for the lofty living Pharisee and the reverse for the tribute collector?

I don’t think Jesus is commending a toady-obsequiousness in our approach to God, rather what is being addressed here is the naiveté of the Pharisee, who really believes that he is better than everybody else. That is a very dangerous blind spot to have. If my life journey has taught me anything it is the hard lesson that I usually fall and fail not from my weaknesses, but in my strengths. It is a simple law of strategy. We do not guard our strengths and in the shadow of our glittering self-images, the dark threats gather.

I have long been disturbed at the tabloids’ rapacious appetites for feasting on fallen icons. Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, the list stretches far back down the Yellow Brick Road. When will we question whether creating such celebrity doesn’t in fact set these poor stars up to collapse into their own, ignored, stellar shadows?

Similarly priests and politicians now have to face more discerning communities who will no longer tolerate inauthenticity be it dressed in Vestments or Louis Vuitton.

To modernise the parable: Who would you rather listen to: “Good morning my name is Joe and I am a regular struggling human being” or “Good morning I am your latest glittering paragon and idol.“?

Despite the Nielsen ratings, Jesus seems pretty clear which one God prefers to hear and help.

Mercy is found at ground level.

Posted in Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Why God doesn’t…

This Sermon is available in Audio by clicking here Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.‘” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the real challenges I set myself by using the Lectionary (which is not required by my denomination) is to come to the texts once in three years and not remember how I worked with them last time around. It was very tempting to look for someone else’s take on the reading this week, particularly as I return to the mainstream lectionary after detouring into the Season of Creation series during September and a week off preaching whilst leading a retreat on October 3rd. This past Sunday I was with St Francis blessing the animals, but now it is back to the extraordinary text this Sunday in Ordinary time. As I read this well known pericope, I instinctively know one thing. This is not about nagging prayer or an unwilling God, it is about a God who bears the suffering of people with them. I think I speak for most of us from Western Christian backgrounds when I say, “We would like to have all our problems fixed quickly.” It may even be one of the main reasons we pray at all. Prayer thus becomes what one Textweek blogger recently referred to as , “a process of giving God a ‘to-do’ list” That is not what Jesus understood by prayer. Jesus had been speaking about the suffering and confusion that was to take place within the lifetimes of many of his hearers. The coming of the Kingdom of God, was going to be in the midst of tumultuous upheavals. Luke continues, “Then Jesus told them a parable…” It is a strange story of a nagging widow that pesters a judge for justice against those who have wronged her. The story is almost inaccessible to us when we read it in 2010, for our context is so different from the one into which Jesus was speaking. We cannot comprehend what it was to be a widow in the time of Jesus. This was not a society where everyone was entitled to their day in court. The irony of the story in its context is that the widow would have no rights and she certainly would not have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. So her crying out for justice is in fact a parody. A little background may be in order: “Women’s behaviour was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. In Jesus day:

  • Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father.
  • Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband.
  • They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.
  • They could not testify in court.
  • They could not appear in public venues.
  • They were not allowed to talk to strangers.
  • They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes.”(Reference)

So as a woman with no man to speak for her, she would have been walled behind her veil and widow’s weeds. Effectively silenced, the very setup of this story Jesus is telling would have evoked interest and bemusement in his hearers. It was loaded with ironic fantasy. This woman can only cry out to the judge unofficially. Perhaps she calls to him as he passes her on his way to the city gates to judge the disputes and charges of the men for the day. The cries of the woman eventually sway the cold heart of the judge who gives in to her request. A mistake many exegetes of this passage make is to miss the ironic subtlety of Jesus. This is not an encouragement to badger God with incessant “to-do” requests and requisitions. The message I hear from Jesus is this, “If hard hearted judges can be moved to act, how much more will your ABBA-Parent be willing and eager always to help the children of God?” Yet this is still not the main point of this parable. I say this, because the parable ends with Jesus asking, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of your life seems intractable and horrific. How do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out? It is here that the widow becomes our teacher. The widow had no rights. She in fact did not have access to the judge, but that did not blight her to bitterness, nor temper her trust. She kept right on calling, trusting despite all evidence to the contrary that there would be a breakthrough in her hopelessness. I heard recently of a monk who had disrobed and left the order to pursue life outside the monastery walls. Months later he wrote back to his monk friends and said, “I am living my new life, but have realised that this is not IT“. When I heard the story something in me wanted to say to the ex-monk, “Yes, this is IT” The “IT” being the constant unsatisfactoriness of life. Buddhism calls this “dukkha”, a difficult word to translate but a concept that points to the suffering and stress of life. Buddhist Scriptures say, “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”(Reference) I find this honesty of the Buddhists refreshing. “Suffering exists” is the first statement Buddhists make about reality. It is their first Noble Truth. Jesus is honest about the suffering of women and widows in his time. The quick fix, romantic and utopian obsessions of our culture will always be tempted to expect our relationships with God to be fulfilling, successful and to have positive outcomes. If my life experience as a parent teaches me anything it is that this is not always so. My relationships with my children and theirs with me is not always rewarding and fruitful. That does not mean that they, nor I, intend them to be so, but the “dukkha” of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule or theirs. Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable. This is IT!” Life isn’t following the script I wrote for it. Some situations are unworkable, stuck, and full of poignant, imperfect, suffering and stress. But I still trust that good things may come. I still have faith that in the end it will all be perfect or that I will see the perfection of the seemingly imperfect. “Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” As long as people who are immersed in dark nights of suffering dream, rather than despair, I believe he will.