Sunday, October 30, 2022

21 Pentecost, 2022-C: Surprising redemption

 Lectionary: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10 

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. 


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