Becoming What We See – Isaiah 65.17-25 / Luke 21.12-19

November 17, 2013 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost

Two weeks ago the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of Louisville hosted a conversation around racial equality and economic development. It’s part of the Compassionate Louisville movement. The Ali Institute is holding up the torch that illuminates compassion as much more significant than individual people simply being kind to each other. Compassion requires us to change our perspectives and our systems so that everyone has access to all the benefits of our community.
We divided into groups, one group to talk about economic development and one to talk about racial equality. Not just the theory of it, but what can we actually do in Louisville? I joined the group talking about racial equality.
One person said when we’re thinking about change we need pictures–images–a vision of what it is we want to move toward. What the change will look like. Then we know where we’re headed.
In our house, we sometimes have the TODAY show on in the morning. Sitting in that conversation about racial equality, I thought about how over the last several years I’ve noticed more people of color on the TODAY show in the capacity of experts. And I’ve also noticed more commercials on tv with people of color.  And even commercials recently with interracial couples and biracial children.
Now I think I notice this because it’s different than it used to be. As a white person, it’s been easy for me not to think about whether there are people of color on tv showing up as experts or as a typical family. It’s easy not to notice because I always saw people who looked like me when I turned on the television. Now I see a picture of the world I want to live in: one where people of color are considered “experts” and “family” in the same way that I as a white person take that experience for granted.
I would never have said that people of color aren’t experts in their fields but when all I see are white people in those roles it begins to work on my subconscious and conscious vision of the world.
This is not to say tv is my only reality but it–and all advertising–is a powerful shaper of the way we see the world.
It’s similar to hearing about somebody’s doctor. If I told you a story about going to see my doctor, what does my doctor look like in your head from the outset of the story?
Even though most of my doctors are women I know that when I hear somebody talk about their doctor I often unconsciously default to imagining a man in that role. Even though my conscious brain and my lived experience says that lots of doctors are women, we still need pictures of a world where women and people of color, right alongside men, are experts and professionals. We need that vision of the way we want the world to be in order for us to change the world to become what we see in the vision.

That’s the kind of picture we hear in Isaiah. (A picture doesn’t have to be only a visual experience. Isaiah uses words to paint an image; to evoke a feeling and to call forth energy and passion toward a goal.)
Scholars call the last eleven chapters of Isaiah “Third Isaiah.” If Second Isaiah (which begins in chapter 40) proclaims God’s promise of “I am about to do a new thing”, Third Isaiah, says one Old Testament professor, is accompanied by Psalm 139 that says, “If I make my bed in Sheol [or the grave, we might say], you are there.”1 Third Isaiah tells the story of the first wave of exiles–who had lived for several generations in Babylon–now beginning to return to their homeland. What they find is a disaster. The temple (the center of their collective life) is in ruins. Jerusalem (their capitol city) is in ruins. Scholars disagree as to whether all of the Kingdom of Judah was in ruins but certainly so much of the social, political and economic life of Judah was wasted from years of war and exile.
If you need an image of what that was like, recall the pictures of devastation we’ve seen in recent days and years from cities in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.
There is a huge project of building and restoration–lying in front of the people who have been released from Babylon and are back in their own country. Not just physical building and restoration–but also emotional and spiritual, economic and cultural, familiar and communal.
What Jesus talks about in Luke 21 is a future time from what we hear about in Third Isaiah when the temple will be destroyed again. There will be persecution and hardship, betrayal and death. It’s not the same circumstances as the people in Third Isaiah are experiencing but there is a similar physical, emotional and spiritual context. It is a time of despair and exhaustion. Injustice and greed are rampant. I can imagine that just as the Hebrew people, freed from enslavement in Egypt but out in the wilderness and wholly dependent on God, they got scared and cried out that they wanted to return to the land slavery, so I wonder if the exiles dreamt about returning to Babylon where life was more certain even if it brought with it more oppression.
In the midst of this suffering and the reality of destruction and the hard work of restoration, God speaks powerful words of life and hope. Words that paint a picture and that call for energy and life toward a goal. God provides a vision of what is coming, of the promises the people can lay hold of not only in the future but now.
Some Christians hear a passage like Luke 21 and interpret it to mean God is bringing a catastrophic end to the world (although they usually believe they will be raptured out of the worst of it all). Jesus actually says something different in the face of the daunting realities of wars and persecution. “Jesus’s primary message in this passage from Luke is: ‘Endure! Endure in your testimony! Endure in your witness!’ For ‘by your endurance you will gain your souls.'”2 (Other translations say, “gain your life.”)
Instead of escaping this world by being raptured away, Jesus called his followers to endure. “To hang in there. To hang in here.”3 To endure is to last for the duration; to persevere. One writer suggests that “perseverance is…more than just stubborn stick-to-it-iveness.” It’s much more “about seeing, or staying focused. Perseverance does not require strength so much as it requires vision. Endurance does not entail an ability to tolerate hardship as much as it entails an ability to see–to see God’s presence even in the intolerable.”4
Vision, then, a picture of where we’re going, the ability to see God’s presence even in the intolerable, is the key to our enduring witness as the Church. And that is what we get in Isaiah 65. It’s a vision of restoration, of right relationships, of health and well-being, of redemption, of justice and all of creation at peace.
In Isaiah 65 there’s this interesting back and forth where God says both “I am about to create” and “I am creating.” It’s what preachers have often talked about as the now and the not yet. There is evidence of this work that God is doing but we don’t yet experience it in its fullness. The re-creating and re-storing and re-deeming work of God is at hand but it is not yet in hand.
So we still need a vision of where God is leading us. We need the a scalable model that architects make for the builders to know the goal of their project. We need an image of what we’re heading toward.

Sometimes that image is found in a text and sometimes it’s found embodied in a community.

A few weeks ago Angela Hagan sent me an email with the subject “Another reason I am thankful for Central Presbyterian.” With the permission of everyone included in this story, I shared it in a Central This Week email and I share it again now.
It was the day that New Jersey became the 14th state to recognize same gender marriage. Angela and Ken and Isabel and Audrey were “eating at a restaurant where Monday Night Football [was] getting ready to come on.” Angela tells it this way, “The news is wrapping up and there is a segment on same sex marriage. Isabel reads the graphic and asks, ‘Is that like same gender?’ Ken says that yes, that is what they mean. Isabel says…’Why is that such big news? Barb and Gwen are married.’ [And then Angela reflected], To live in a world where two people who love each other are free to marry. I have a dream, indeed. My seven year old gets it. Maybe more will, too.” 5

Here in this community, our children get to experience a piece of the reality of the world God is recreating, restoring and redeeming. Not just by hearing the words but by being part of a community where we seek to live this out. Where we live out our call to work alongside God to build a world where love can live and all can safely dwell.
We don’t do it perfectly, of course, but no child who grows up in this congregation will have to turn their back on the church–or on God–because they were told some of the people they love are not part of God’s family.
Here, our children learn and experience–and we learn and experience right alongside them–everyone is part of God’s family and everyone is welcome.
Every week we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as is it in heaven.” Our participation in this congregation, our time, our energy, our money and prayers–the way we endure and give witness to our faith day by day–is all part of the redeeming and restoring–the new heavens and the new earth that God is creating in the world.
Thanks be to God!

* * *
1 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 187.
2 Jane Larsen-Wigger, sermon on Luke 21.15-19, November 14, 2010.
3  Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Personal email from Angela Hagan, October 21, 2013.


Offering Our Heart – Luke 19.1-10 / Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4

November 3, 2013 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost

    The first thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was a chief tax collector. That means he was a friend of nobody and nobody was his friend.
    A tax collector like Zacchaeus was hated because while he was Jewish, he was also part of the Roman establishment of oppression. He collected taxes for the hated Roman government and then added on whatever he could get out of people to pay his own salary.
10    We learn from the gospel writer that Zacchaeus was not only a chief tax collector but he was a wealthy one which means he was very good at extortion. He was gouging people left and right to support the Roman rulers and to make his own life comfortable while the people around him suffered.
    The words of Habakkuk would certainly have been on the lips of the Jewish community oppressed by Rome and betrayed by their own kinsmen who had sold themselves out to the Romans.
    “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”

    The second thing we learn is that Zacchaeus was interested in Jesus.
    Perhaps he’d heard about Levi―a tax collector who Jesus had invited to be one of his followers. Maybe he heard about the  party Levi gave for his fellow tax collectors and how Jesus was right in the middle of it all―eating and laughing and telling stories and listening to them as if he really wanted to be with them. (Even though the religious leaders laid into Jesus something fierce for going to the party.)
    For all Zacchaeus’s wealth, he was isolated and rejected in his own community. His money and government connections couldn’t buy him the kind of relationships he really wanted. Maybe he thought Jesus would look at him with kindness in the same way Jesus had welcomed Levi the tax collector.  
    The third thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was short. The gospel writer tells us there was a crowd and you know what happens when you’re not very tall and trying to see in a crowd―you can’t see over people’s heads and many times you can’t push your way to the front either. So Zacchaeus did the undignified thing for a Middle Eastern man and he ran ahead and climbed a tree for a better vantage point.

    And then Jesus comes by and looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
    Now whether Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree or whether the crowd was pointing to him or whether Zacchaeus yelled “Yoo hoo! Jesus” we don’t know. What we know is that Jesus called his name and said, “I’m going to your house today.”
    Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, you chief tax collector.” “Hey, you scoundrel.” “Hey, you low-life thief and oppressor of my people―I’ve got something you need to hear and you had better listen up.”
    Jesus looks at Zacchaeus for who he is―not with all his labels and shortcomings and smarmy government connections―just Zacchaeus.
    Author Frederick Buechner says, “It’s not recorded how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment”1 and he welcomed Jesus with joy.
    Zacchaeus rejoices and the crowds grumble. They grumbled because Jesus was going to eat at the house of someone who was unclean―someone who was outside the community of the faithful―someone who hurt them. And if Jesus had any dignity, he would not be going to Zacchaeus’s house.
    And then Zacchaeus stood still and said to Jesus, “I am going to give half of my possessions to the poor and anyone I have stolen from I will repay four times over.”
    Being recognized as a child of God by Jesus is enough to change Zacchaeus’s life.
    Isn’t that amazing? They haven’t even gotten to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus hasn’t said another word. No prayer has been uttered. No bible passage read. No sermon preached about repentance. No altar call. And Zacchaeus’s life is transformed.
    Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to change his financial status before he decided if he’d eat at his house. Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to say, “I’m through with this wicked life of tax collecting” before he said “I’d like to visit you.”
    Instead, Jesus sees Zacchaeus for who he is―Zacchaeus―a child of Abraham―a member of God’s family―a beloved child of God. He doesn’t look at Zacchaeus as “the tax collector” or a traitor or the arm of the Roman oppressors. Jesus looks at Zacchaeus with eyes of love and sees him as God’s beloved.
    It’s like one of my favorite authors, Nancy Mairs, who says, “God feeds first. She asks questions later.”2
    And the effect of Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus doesn’t find Zacchaeus saying, “I’ll be a nicer person.” “I’ll pray more often and go to synagogue three times a week.” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I’ll think only positive thoughts and I won’t curse any more.”
    Those aren’t bad things to do, but Zacchaeus’s life is transformed by Jesus’ regard for him and his heart that was two sizes too small opens up. (Okay, Luke doesn’t say Zacchaeus’s heart was too small. That’s poetic license from Dr. Seuss. But don’t you think your heart has to get tiny and dry in order to do the kind of soul-sucking, hate-inducing, selling-out-your-family-and-friends kind of work Zacchaeus did?) And he offers his heart to God and to his neighbors.
    The transformation of Zacchaeus’s heart moves to his eyes as he sees the world and himself in a new way. And then the transformation moves to his money and his possessions as he reaches out with compassion toward the poor and to those whom he has wronged.
    In AA, one of the steps toward recovery and healing is to admit where you have wronged others and to make amends wherever possible. Zacchaeus’s transformation recognizes that his salvation (remember the word salvation means, at its root, healing and wholeness) salvation has to do with letting go of grudges and letting old wounds heal, opening your heart to God and others.
    Zacchaeus’s life is transformed because Jesus regarded him as a whole human being―a beloved child of God. And in that transformation his relationship with others starts to heal in very tangible ways.
    And I wonder if some in Zacchaeus’s community were also transformed. They had prayed for so long that God would notice their suffering and would bring them relief. We heard the words in Habakkuk, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?…The wicked surround the righteous” and there is no justice.3 I suspect what many of them wanted was their oppressors to be vanquished and smote (that is, done away with). Instead, the guy they hated was saved. Not in some cheesy way. In a life transforming, heart redeeming, compassion invoking, poverty eliminating, community restoring kind of way.
    Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul, writes, “As I see it, you listen to the words of Jesus and are jolted into an entirely new imagination of how the world works. [Jesus’s] actions and teachings spell out this new imagination…If being a [follower of Jesus] doesn’t transform your imagination, then religion is getting in the way”4 of God’s vision for the world.
    Zacchaeus has lived in a world—as we do too—a world that “functions largely from the imagination of power and money.”5 Which gets you to places like “people who have power and money are the most important people.” And “The most important thing in life is to get more power and more money.” That way of life has some perks but ultimately, it’s a dead-end road.
    Thomas Moore goes on to say that a “change of mind is not about [a] change of belief, but a shift in the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which you live.”6
    Zacchaeus experienced himself through Jesus’s eyes as a beloved child of God and everything shifted. His heart opened and his life was transformed. In Thomas Moore’s words, the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which he lived was transformed. Zacchaeus experienced the life-changing power of being a human being who was part of God’s beloved family. And as he experienced compassion and love from Jesus, he could open his heart to God and to his neighbors.

    Maybe you have experienced a similar kind of thing―as someone saw in you a cherished and loved person in whom God delights. And in being seen in a new way by another, you were able to open your heart and live into being that wonderful child of God that God has created you to be.    
    If that has not yet been your experience, consider what would be different in your life if you lived out of the deep emotional and intellectual imagination of being a cherished and loved child of God―and saw everyone else in that way as well.

    This morning we are making our pledge of financial support for God’s work through the ministry of this congregation―a ministry of life transforming welcome and hospitality. So I wonder how does welcoming Jesus joyfully in your life, offering your heart to God and opening it to your neighbors, how does that transform your life and inform the way you use your money?
    One of my favorite stanzas from all the hymns I know the last stanza of “For the Fruit of all Creation.” It seems a fitting stanza for Zacchaeus and for us:
    For the harvests of the Spirit, 
    Thanks be to God.
    For the good we all inherit, 
    Thanks be to God.
    For the wonders that astound us, 

    For the truths that still confound us
    Most of all that love has found us, 
    Thanks be to God.7

* * *
1 A friend shared this quote with me years ago but without any citation.
2 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 89.
3 Habakkuk, 1.3a, 4b
4 Thomas Moore, “A Mind-altering Message,” Spirituality and Health, Nov/Dev 2004, 11.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Text by Fred Pratt Green.