I'm cruising on the river of life, happy to trust the flow, enjoying the ride as I live into a new season of life and ministry as the Priest in Charge at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, MO. I am also co-founder of the Partnership for Renewal, a church vitality nonprofit. You are most welcome to visit my blog anytime and enjoy the ride with me. Peace.
As news of the shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts HS developed this week, a letter written by the shooter, 19-year-old Orlando Harris, was found in his car. In that letter, Orlando said, “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never had a social life. I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life.” Source.
I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life…
We don’t know the circumstances of Orlando Harris’ life or what led him to the moment of violence he unleashed at CVPA. I accept that his note reflects his experience. There is also evidence of his family’s attempts to intervene to protect him and others. In the end, however, he was lost. His experience of being cut off from love led to death.
It’s that way for all of us. Our lives are rooted in our relationship with God, our Creator, and fortified in our relationships with others.
I wish Orlando had known that his cries echo the human experience. In our reading from Habakkuk we hear this desperate prayer:
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save?”
I wish Orlando could have known God’s redemption as described by the prophet Habakkuk who moved from desperate isolation to steadfast faith, trusting God to answer his prayer: “I will stand at my watchpost… I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…”
And God told the prophet Habakkuk to wait.
Waiting can be the hardest thing to do when we are in pain or desperate. Holding still in the steadfast belief that God hears and answers our prayers, that God will find and rescue us when we are lost, is hard when God seems absent amid the destruction and violence all around us.
But God isn’t absent. God isn’t ever absent. And God knows better than we do how redemption will happen.
That is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s gospel from Luke. The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one. It even has a song that sings in our thoughts every time we hear his name:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see…”
Do you know it? I remember it from childhood.
The story of Zacchaeus teaches us that God’s redemption will almost always surprise us and that we should be careful about what we think we know about who needs it.
Zacchaeus was a Jewish tax collector who was, by definition, working for the enemy – the Roman occupiers, and getting rich from it. He was, therefore hated by his Jewish community and ostracized by them. In today’s parlance, he was a traitor to his own people and was profiting from it.
So when Jesus came to the wealthy city of Jericho, where Joshua won the battle that gave the Israelites their first home in the Promised Land after their exile, the Jewish people were happy to welcome him. Zacchaeus’ presence would have been an unwelcome part of this happy day.
Most of us grew up hearing that Jesus saved Zacchaeus that day, but the passage tells a different story. Many translations change the verb tense from present to future. Zacchaeus actually says, "Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor – not I will give… If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore four times as much – not I will restore, as our translation says.
Some scholars justify this intentional verb tense change by reasoning that if it were present tense, Zacchaeus would sound boastful which Jesus wouldn’t like, or that rich men in the gospels are usually lost, or that if Zacchaeus had been righteous all along it would diminish this as a salvation story.
But that makes no sense to me. The story is a much stronger story in keeping with the overall message of Jesus when it is read in the present tense as it was written.
Zacchaeus was a righteous tax collector, which is admittedly, a difficult concept to fathom. Zacchaeus found a way to survive the horrible reality of Roman occupation and even to profit from it, but he didn’t do that by stealing from his own people.
Even though they hated and ostracized him, Zacchaeus remained steadfast in his right relationship with his Jewish community – and this goes straight to the heart of Jesus’ continual admonition not to judge. The Jewish people in Zacchaeus’ community judged him as sinful – and they were wrong.
So, Jesus demonstrated what God’s redemption looks like – only it wasn’t for Zacchaeus. It was for the “household” (Gk: oikos) present – the Jewish people who were gathered near that sycamore tree. By proclaiming, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham…" Jesus freed them all of the prejudice that separated and divided them, reconciling Zacchaeus back into his Jewish community.
When he said, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” he was talking about those who put up barriers to relationship, as justified as they thought they were. Zacchaeus was not who was lost. He was already justified by his righteousness. It was the Jewish people gathered. They were the lost ones Jesus came to save, to unbind them from the sin of their judgment and the brokenness it caused their community.
Today as we all heal from the trauma of another school shooting, this one in our hometown, our community, it helps to remember that we too tend to pass judgment and when we do it fractures our community.
What led Orlando Harris, a child of God, to that horrible moment of destruction? We don’t know, but we can and must remember that we are not called to judge, but to reconcile. To do that we must recognize where prejudice is coloring our opinions and fracturing our community, and act to restore right relationship.
As Christians, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation established by Jesus. We do this instinctively when we let ourselves. As news of the shooting unfolded, the videos showed people embracing one another, holding hands, and tenderly touching tear-streaked faces. This is what being the hands and heart of Christ in a broken world looks like.
Let’s close with a prayer by our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson., called, “A prayer for God’s embrace.”
Let us pray.
Surround us O God, surround us,
Surround us with your loving embrace,
when the weight of the world is heavy.
Surround us with your tender compassion,
when the weariness encroaches.
Surround us with your amazing grace,
when all seems hopeless and lost.
Surround us with your abiding wisdom,
when we are too well pleased with ourselves.
Surround us with your unfenced joy,
when the sadness of the world overwhelms.
Surround us O God, with your very self,
that we may rest secure in your everlasting arms.
Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.
Did you know that the roots of our Anglican-Episcopal tradition are Celtic? It wasn’t until 664, at the Council of Whitby, that the Anglican Church voted to shift from the Celtic tradition of the monks in Iona, to the Roman tradition under Pope Gregory the Great, thereby solving the perplexing problems of how to calculate the date of Easter and how monks should cut their hair.
It’s important to know our history especially as we celebrate Creation Season this year. In the creation-centered Celtic tradition, God is feminine in nature and the institution operates within a relational, monastic structure. In the Roman tradition, God is masculine in nature and the institution operates on a hierarchical, militaristic structure.
Today we are both and evidence of that can be seen woven into our polity and our practices. How we pray, for example, reflects which tradition has had more influence in our experience.
Do we pray to God who outranks us and whose orders we must follow or be punished? Or do we pray to God whom Julian of Norwich described saying, “our heavenly mother, Jesus, may never suffer us to be lost, for we are his children. And he is almighty, all wisdom, all love…For now he wants us to behave just like a child; for when a child is upset or afraid, it runs straight to its mother with all its might.” (John Skinner, ed., Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 137). Note: Julian icon written by Anne Davidson. Used with permission.
There are times we need God to be strong, protective, and ready to kick some opponent butt for us. There are other times we need the tender, loving God from whose womb we came and to whose womb we’ll return, as Julian said. Thankfully, we have both. God is all of that and more.
When we pray, it is always in response to God. When we think we need to ask God for help, or strength, or health, it is because God has nudged us to acknowledge our need and come close, trusting God to provide.
There are times when our prayers seem to go unheard, and our pain or heartache remains undiminished… justice unobtained. We cry out to God, ‘Do you not care that this is happening? Where are you God? Why don’t you do something?’
When that happens, we remember our belief that God desires the reconciliation of the whole world, including those who cause us pain and heartache, which is why Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and for those who persecute us. They are to be redeemed also and we participate in their redemption by our prayer. What seems like a delay in God’s response to our prayer for justice may actually be the result of God’s continuing efforts to redeem a lost soul or the souls of those involved in the corrupt systems doing the harm.
Luke reminds us to pray always and not lose heart and Jesus’ parable contrasts God with the judges of the world, assuring us that God hears and answers our prayers. “Listen to what the unjust judge says… I will grant justice.” Jesus promises that God responds to our prayer for our sakes, not for God’s own sake, and that God will act quickly to give us justice. Do you believe that? Jesus asks his listeners… Do we?
Prayer is the way we go from knowing about God to knowing God. When we enter into a deeply prayerful relationship with God, we find that God’s desires soon become our desires. Over time, we begin to notice that our will submits more easily and more quickly to God’s will, and we become accustomed to experiencing a oneness with God, one another, and all of creation that is real and true. The things of the world that divide us (power, money, privilege, position) begin to look ridiculous in the context of the Love that connects us and makes us one.
Prayer is a discipline – a strength we build by practice. Setting aside time to pray alone every day and praying in community every week are important habits to foster and they are especially helpful when we find ourselves in crisis, whether it’s a crisis in our lives or a crisis of faith. That’s when our discipline of prayer carries us through, even when we don’t know what we believe anymore. And when we are experiencing the hardest of times, the emptiest of dark nights, the prayers of our community join with the prayers of the company of heaven to uphold us until we emerge victorious again into the light of God.
The way of God and the way of the world hardly ever agree as Jesus’ parable illustrates. That’s why we are wise to heed St. Paul’s advice to be steadfast in believing and guided by Scripture. It’s why we need to remember Luke’s reminder that we should pray always and not lose heart.
But how do we pray always? It seems like an impossible task. I think we are better at this than we might think.
We are praying when we rest quietly in the presence of God, when we read Holy Scripture, pray the Rosary, walk a labyrinth, or contemplate an icon. We pray when we lose ourselves in the magic of a sunset, or when we sing hymns to God. We pray when we joyfully tend to mundane tasks grateful for the gift of life and the ability to work.
When it’s hard to pray, and all we can do is wait in darkness, feeling no real connection to God or anything else, even that is prayer, because it is in the darkness that the transforming light of Christ, promised and delivered to us by Jesus, breaks in most dazzlingly.
I close with a prayer from St. Columba of Iona:
Be to me, O God, a bright flame before me, a guiding star above me, a smooth path beneath me, and a kindly shepherd behind me, today, tonight, and forever. (St Columba 521-597AD, Iona) Amen.