Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A nasty man

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                          
Luke 19:1-10

People who have been bullied over the years may become bullies and abusers themselves.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”.  Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time and the job of collecting taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who at least had thugs in their retinue.   Of course they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).  

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of  payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  

The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zaccheus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unloveable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.  

Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.  

What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  Jesus appears to be interested in change more than he is in damnation.  This interest in the “lot of sinners” is the tax collector’s only hope.   It is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story.   It is also the only hope of the contemporary readers of my imperfect retelling of this story.  Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.  Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                            
Joel 2:23-32

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh!”

So God speaks through the prophet Joel to communities which have struggled to force a harvest from their fields with little rain. So he speaks to people who have barely been able to retain a sense of vision and purpose in times which are hard - both politically and spiritually. It will all come to pass. The times will be good again.

This time of restoration, with fields bearing the full weight of heavy heads of grains, with sons and daughters fit for prophecy and with old men (and presumably old women) seeing into the depth of things with wisdom and insight has always, in the Christian tradition, been seen in light of the gift of God’s spirit on the day of Pentecost.

First of all the gift is given - it is not confected through human effort and cunning plans. It arrives in God’s good time.

Secondly - the gift is poured upon ordinary human flesh: Ordinary humans - with the rustic abilities common to their humanity - find that their ordinary speech now wins over nations and convinces individuals. Hospitality - rather than being the simple ability to set a table and provide a roof - becomes a spiritual gift.

The Church has always had a table set in its midst.

Our sons and daughters and our old people: Note how those of us who consider themselves at the apex of their abilities as wage earners, parents, movers and shakers are here reminded that God spreads his talents far and wide and that we must look to the edges of our family - to youth and to elderly people to see what God is doing next.

The reading from Joel is both thrilling and humbling - a reasonable foretaste of the Advent season where we will marvel at how God uses whom he wills to bring about the transformation of the created order.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Pray for the city in which you live

The 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Interesting, isn't it, that God (through the prophet Jeremiah) does not say to the exiles in Babylon that they have been merely hard-done-by and captured by an evil King. He tells them that he, God, is the one who has sent them into exile there. These would have been bitter words for them to hear. They might have wanted more sympathy.

Last week we heard the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 137) from the same epoch asking "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" This week the question is answered.

God says: You will take your sojourn in Babylon seriously. It's where you live now. Your health depends on the health of the city and your prosperity on its prosperity. Allow your family life to be touched by the community you live in and extend your own hand upon your surroundings as well. Let genuine relationship flourish.

Above all pray for the city in which you live and lift up its life to God.

France is not Babylon. America, Canada and Great Britain are not the promised land. One should hesitate to make too direct a comparison between our world and the Biblical world we happen to be reading about. Nonetheless we ought to examine which reflections herein might apply to us:

1) While there are accidents of history (work or family necessities) which move us hither and thither we are involved, as people of God, with a Creator, Redeemer and Inspirer who has always uprooted and replanted his people. He does it for their good and he does it for the good of the world he sends them into. It should not surprise you that you are here with a purpose.

2) The world in which we feel like aliens or visitors is a beautiful world. God wants something for it and you are a partner in that work. You - and not someone else. Here - and nowhere else.

3) Even the symbols which God, through his prophet, recommends - the building of houses, planting of gardens and the contracting of marriages - may mean something for us. What is the visible sign we do, or could, exhibit which shows that we want to belong to the society in which we are presently living?

At the very least let us be curious about this and consider it.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Faith like a mustard seed.

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 17:5-10

A mustard seed is pretty small and it's remarkable how any seed contains all the information and the dynamic ability to become a plant of any size.

"This" becomes "that".  Our babies soon tower above us.  The little problem left long enough soon overwhelms.  And (or but) isn't it amazing what good things stem from humble beginnings: from chance meetings, from individual acts of courage and from that strange combination of curiosity, derring-do and inner assurance we know as "faith"?

Jesus credits faith, even smatterings of faith, with the ability to move mountains.  It is important to note that faith - when Jesus talks about it - has an object.  The small faith that matters is not cheery optimism or faith in one's self - something destined to disappoint.  Faith here is faith in God - faith in God to fulfill his promises and to complete what he has begun in us and in the world.

It's what we have as the chief implement in the Church's hand when we found communities and presume to reach out to others.  Looking with a critical eye at our resources they are, in fact, pretty slim.  We believe, however, that God has an even greater investment in the Mission of the Church than any of us and so by believing that we will be equipped we work as partners with God and not owners of the process.  We take our forward steps based on that subtle and frequently neglected knowledge.

It is the chief implement in the hand of the individual as well.  Looking critically at our own personalities, we who "are neither happy nor good" might well wonder how we will ever get from where we are to where we need to be.  Were it not for the fact that there is one around us, and within us and above us who has a greater investment in our progress as people, in our journey towards love and in the cultivation of our courage than we do - than our parents did we might well despair.

We are not alone, though, in either journey.  Faith in God - even faltering faith - will have its answer and it's reward.