Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon for Proper 26

St Matthew's, Bloomington--Luke 19:1-10

I don’t know if you’ve even heard the expression “post-modern,” but it’s a term that has been cropping up more and more over the last several years. Those whose business it is to make wise and penetrating observations about the evolution of our culture have coined the phrase to describe the way people of certain generations tend to think. Post-modernism as a thought process is largely absent from what has been called the “World War II generation”—those who were children during the Great Depression, and a few of whom are still around! It begins to become visible among “Baby Boomers”—that is, my own generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. But in the succeeding generations—so-called “Generation X,” people who are now mostly in their 40s—as well as what many refer to as “Millennials,” young people who are presently in their 20s and early 30s—among these younger generations of adults, post-modernism is not only one visible thread in the fabric, it’s the dominant thread in the fabric.

Without taking the time to describe all the features of the post-modern way of thinking, let me just say this: People who are around my age and older are conditioned by a fairly large dose of scientific skepticism. Therefore we don’t naturally accept spiritual claims and spiritual assertions at face value. We tend to want to see some proof for what people say about spiritual reality. This is the “modern” way of thinking, and has been in vogue for about the past 300 years. The post-modern way of thinking, by contrast, is completely open to a wide range of notions and beliefs about spiritual reality. In fact, there seems to be no end to this openness. Post-modernism is accepting of just about any sort of spiritual claim, with the sole criterion of authenticity being that the person who makes the claim finds it useful or comforting or even perhaps just vaguely interesting.

So, the hallmark of the post-modern generations is a pervasive spiritual restlessness—a deep hunger for spiritual experience and a sense of purpose and direction in life, combined with a willingness to try just about anything. But at the same time, there seems to be a widespread difficulty in actually sticking with something for an extended period. All around us, there is this massive hunt for truth going on, but those who are chasing the truth seem to be alarmed by the possibility that they or anyone else might actually catch it! So often, the assumption seems to be that truth is by nature difficult to find and hold onto.

But while the younger generations are spiritually restless, middle-aged and older Americans are, to a large extent, spiritually deaf and blind. We are heavily conditioned to value such things as personal independence and rugged individualism—the “I did it my way” philosophy of Frank Sinatra’s song. And, as I mentioned before, we are also conditioned to be “scientific” in our attitudes. It seems quite clear to us that any knowledge, any claim about truth—physical, emotional, or spiritual—any knowledge worth having results from, and only from, rigorous investigation. Maybe you’ve noticed how popular certain TV shows are that deal with crime scene investigation. The heroes of these shows are not street cops who rely on instincts and hunches based on years of experience, but, rather, science geeks who solve crimes in laboratories and surrounded by millions of dollars worth of scientific testing equipment.  Truth that can be had too cheaply doesn’t interest them. Only if it’s a scientific smoking gun is it worth taking to court. Oddly, then, for different reasons, these shows appeal both to modernists and to post-modernists.

There was once a fellow named Zacchaeus who was neither a modernist nor a post-modernist, but whose attitude combined both perspectives. St Luke the Evangelist tells us about Zacchaeus, and mentions two very salient facts about him: a) he was a tax collector, and b) he was short, noticeably shorter than the average adult male of his day. The first of these meant that he was considered beneath contempt, a social outcast. The second guaranteed that he was the object of a lot of laughing behind his back. Somehow, Zacchaeus got word that Jesus was going to be visiting Jericho, the town where he lived. He was determined to meet Jesus. It was really, really important to him to meet Jesus. So he did what it took to make that happen. He was willing to risk turning himself into a spectacle, a laughingstock. He climbed up into a sycamore tree along the route he figured Jesus would take, and edged himself out onto the branch overlooking the roadway.

Zacchaeus didn’t have the confidence that Jesus would even give him the time of day, let alone stop for a chat. It was up to him to make the encounter happen, if it was to be at all. Very often, people take a similar attitude in their relationship with God and God’s love. If the encounter is going to happen, they figure it’s up to them to make it happen. We flit from spiritual fad to spiritual fad. We try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, hoping that we might stumble across God in the process, just based on mathematical odds, if not our own wisdom and skill. In the end, though, we are swallowed up either by false pride for having “found” God on our own, or by despair for having failed to do so.

Fortunately, Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus shows us a different path. Indeed, Jesus’ route through Jericho does take him right under Zacchaeus’ perch. At that point, though, everything takes an unexpected turn. It’s time to think outside the box, to draw outside the lines. Not only does Jesus stop and chat with Zacchaeus, he invites himself home with Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus get yourself down from that tree; I’m comin’ to your house right now!”  Zacchaeus had thought he was looking for Jesus. The stunning truth, however, is that it was Jesus who was doing the looking; Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus.

There is a tremendous lesson for us here, whatever generation we’re a member of. It demonstrates to us that God’s love, far from being merely passive and responsive, waiting for us to make the first move—it demonstrates to us that God’s love is proactive—seeking us and pursuing us and finding us. And God’s love is tireless; it even seeks out the “hard cases.” It’s easy to love cute little kids and sweet old ladies. But funny-looking tax collectors like Zacchaeus? Well, that’s a love worth sitting up and taking notice of.

We need to work a little bit to understand just how impressive it was that Jesus publicly announced his intent to invite himself over to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. You see, Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, and not only short, but he was also rich. And it would have been presumed that his gains were mostly ill-gotten. Now, Jesus has already established, earlier in Luke’s gospel, that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, what does Jesus say about Zacchaeus? What does he say for all to hear? “Today salvation has come to this house…”  Wow! It sounds like a camel has just squeezed through the eye of a needle! It’s a veritable miracle, a miracle of God’s proactive love, love that doesn’t wait for us to seek it out, but, instead seeks us out, hunting us down relentlessly, and never giving up the chase.
What a blessing this is, my friends. God’s proactive love means that we can really rest spiritually. Of course, this is the complete opposite of the spiritual restlessness that consumes so many in the younger generations. It’s also the opposite of the spiritual blindness and deafness—a poisonous skepticism and callousness—that consumes so many in the older generations. When we come to terms with just how determined God is to love us, we begin to experience the truth of one of my favorite prayers from the Daily Office, from Morning Prayer on Thursdays, to be specific: “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life, we may not forget you, but…” – and here’s the kicker – “…that we may not forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight.”  To be “ever walking in [God’s] sight”—this is both a comfort and a challenge—sometimes, we would rather not be walking in God’s sight, right?—but even as a challenge, it’s a powerful bit of evidence of Divine love, love in which Jesus seeks us out and invites himself into our hearts, even as he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home, love that we don’t have to climb any trees to find, and which we can never outrun. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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