Seeing Jesus, Seeing Zacchaeus: A Sermon for Proper 26C, 2022

I didn’t think it could still happen. I’ve been preaching regularly for seventeen years. I don’t know how many sermons I’ve preached over the years—some might say I preach the same one every week. I’ve been through year C, this year of the three-year lectionary cycle, 6 times. And over all those years, I’ve never preached on this gospel passage. It’s not like I’m avoiding it; or that I always take off the last Sunday in October. Rather, it’s that because we observe All Saints’ Sunday on the first Sunday in November each year, the texts for that observance take precedence over the texts for this Sunday, Proper 26. To top all that off, in all my years of teaching bible before becoming a priest, this was not one of the texts that made it into class discussion for Intro to Bible or Intro to New Testament.

So this week I read the gospel with an openness and with no preconceived ideas that I usually bring to the text. It’s kind of a strange feeling not to have all of that history with the text. Really, the only history or preconceived notions I have about it are my faint memories of the song we used to sing in Sunday School when I was small: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Truthfully, that’s all I remember of the song. Although it turns out, Deacon Carol can sing all three verses.

The story of the encounter of Zacchaeus and Jesus comes at the end of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem. That journey began when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” back in chapter 9; and Jericho is the last stop. In a few verses, Jesus will enter Jerusalem in triumph, and by the next Friday will be crucified. 

With that on the horizon, the story of Zacchaeus takes on more significance. And while there’s nothing in the story that seems to foreshadow the events of the coming week, there’s a great deal that hearkens back to earlier episodes and themes in the Gospel of Luke.

The first of those themes is sight or seeing. Immediately preceding this story, Jesus heals a blind man just as he is about to enter Jericho. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus had healed a bent-over woman in the synagogue after seeing her. Now, Zacchaeus, the short man, runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus; and when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus, and Jesus seeing him, leads to their deeper encounter.

Second, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Throughout the gospel, Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners, eating in their homes, conversing with them, welcoming them into the new community he is creating and into the Reign of God that he is proclaiming. Often, Jesus’ behavior arouses anger and opposition as it does here. Bystanders grumbled that Jesus was going to eat at the house of a sinner.

Tax collectors in the Roman empire were especially reviled. It’s not just that they worked for the IRS and were feared because they might call for an audit. The entire system was profoundly unjust and oppressive. Tax collecting was farmed out; you could buy the franchise for a province or an area; and then subcontract to others beneath you. The way you made money was by extracting more in taxes than you needed to send up the food chain and finally to Rome. So if you were a tax collector, you wanted to squeeze as much as you could out of the people. And you were seen as a collaborator with the empire, not a member of the community. For Jesus to invite himself into the home of a tax collector was to put himself on the side of extortionists and collaborators. 

All of which brings us to a third theme—sin, repentance, forgiveness. And that’s where it gets a bit tricky, at least in the story. At the end of it, Jesus commends Zacchaeus, saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Jesus says this in response to Zacchaeus’ statement: Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

What complicates things a bit is that what is translated here as the future tense: I will give half my possessions to the poor, could also be translated in the present tense: “I am giving half my goods…” In other words, Zacchaeus’ actions may already be taking place before his encounter with Jesus, not as a result of his encounter with Jesus. 

It becomes a rather puzzling story then, with a tax collector who does more in response to the law of Moses than expected or demanded. In response, Jesus does not declare that he has faith, but rather acknowledges him as a son of Abraham, a member of the Jewish community, no matter what his neighbors might think. 

And one more thing. Think about that tax collector in last week’s gospel, who went to the temple and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The word sin does not appear in the story of Zacchaeus, and we don’t see clear signs of Zacchaeus’ repentance, or words of forgiveness from Jesus.

What are we left with, then? Well, this. Seeing. Zacchaeus climbs up a tree so he can see Jesus. He is so desperate to see Jesus, so excited, that he will do anything to accomplish it, even something as silly or un-behooving an adult male as climbing a tree. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree, and I can’t imagine doing it. But Zacchaeus did, in his excitement and in his joy.

 And because he does so, Jesus can see him. But not only see him. Jesus calls him by name. He knows him. Who else of all those who Jesus engages with in the gospel of Luke have names? The people Jesus heals, the people who come to ask questions, most of them remain anonymous, but not Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ joy and excitement are rewarded, even while the crowd grumbles around him. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, so that their brief encounter becomes a longer one. Zacchaeus becomes the honored and gracious host and Jesus the honored and gracious guest. 

That might be the take away for us. This joyous, joy-filled encounter takes place just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The mood shifts suddenly and dramatically. But now, for a moment, Zacchaeus can have his excitement and joy and Jesus can relax in a stranger’s home.

We live in times where joy often seems distant, a faint memory. The weight of the world lies on our shoulders; our own problems, the world’s problems seem intractable and worsening; divisions deepening. Our political institutions seem on the verge of collapse; old hatreds that seemed long-dead have returned as virulent and violent as ever. We may feel overwhelmed with fear.

But Jesus comes to us. Do we want to see him? Do we want to have that life-changing encounter, to see him? He is calling our names, inviting us to be with him, inviting us to enter his presence, to see him. May our encounters with him fill us with joy and may his presence transform our lives.

Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden trowels

Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden Trowels

Proper 24C

October 16, 2022

I’m holding up a garden trowel. Its blade was fashioned from the barrel of a gun, its handle from a gunstock. Yesterday, a group of us heard from Shane Claiborne, author of Beating Guns. He has taken his vision of re-enacting the prophetic call to beat our swords into plowshares across the country. At a forge and anvil, he and others forge the metal from hand guns and assault rifles into gardening implements. One gun so repurposed makes little difference. There are more than 400 million guns in the USA. 41000 people were killed by gun violence last year in the US. It’s one more staggering statistic in a litany of suffering that can lead to despair as we watch the various crises unfold in our community, nation, and world.

We have heard a great deal about the crises in and around our judicial system. Trust in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low; the federal court system seems intent on turning back rights, negating regulations that protect us and the environment. There was a news story last week about an appellate case that had been before a court for around a decade with no resolution.

We’ve also heard about the injustices in the criminal justice system; the way people of color are targeted; rape kits that have gone un-analyzed; people on bail committing violent crimes. There’s a sense that the scales of justice are weighted toward the powerful and wealthy, and that the weak and vulnerable are left to themselves. The stories of doctored evidence; of forced guilty pleas go on and on.

We’re also facing a crisis of democracy with election deniers poised to take over important positions in state governments and gerrymandering that disenfranchises voters and voting regulations that are intended to keep turnouts down. At the same time, policies with widespread popular support—like the right of women to make reproductive choices, and reasonable limits on firearms—are held hostage by vocal and powerful minorities.

Yesterday, we heard stories from women who were crying out for justice and change. As part of our Beating Guns event, two African-American women shared stories of the loss of their sons to gun violence and the trauma caused to themselves and to their other family members as a result. Their voices broke as they spoke of the pain and loss they felt: a mother who lost her best friend and closest companion, a child who would never know their father. Such stories are all too familiar. We have seen the tears and anger of parents after school shootings so often that we hardly take note of mass shootings any longer.

So when we hear a story like the parable in today’s gospel, something about it rings very true. A widow seeking justice approaches the court. We don’t know what her concern is. What we do know is that in 1st century Palestine, as in many places today, widows were especially vulnerable people. The mosaic law made special provision for widows and orphans, commanding that they be cared for, provided for by society as a whole and especially by those with wealth and power. 

In other words, this judge, by refusing to hear her case, by ignoring her was breaking the law of Moses. In the end, he relents—not because he sees the justice of her cause. We’re told that he neither fears God nor respects people. Instead, he relents because he’s tired of her coming in front of him repeatedly. In the original, their encounters are described rather more colorfully than in the translation we heard: the woman’s repeated appearances before him are giving him a “black eye.” Not only does she cause him physical pain; she is embarrassing him publicly.

Now here’s the thing. Jesus is telling the parable not to rant about the powers that be; the injustice of it all, the different treatments of the haves and the have-nots. He is telling it in order to say something about prayer. The parable is told to the disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” 

  Prayer and justice. The parable and its setting open up a number of interpretive possibilities. The most obvious may be the least helpful-comparing our experience of unanswered prayer with the widow who seeks justice. Unhelpful because in this approach, we would also likely interpret God on the lines of the unjust judge—a God disinterested or uncaring for us, and responsive only because we are persistent in our requests and annoying. 

In fact, Jesus makes quite the opposite point. If even an unjust judge eventually relents to persistent complaints, how much more likely to respond is a just, righteous, and compassionate God? Of course we get that many people would give up if their prayers remained unanswered, if their calls for justice remain unheard. For us, too, it may seem easy to lose heart, to abandon our cause.

But this parable is powerful testimony to the importance of not giving up. It also challenges us to center our cries for justice in prayer itself. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, mystic, and theologian who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. from Selma to Montgomery, said as he reflected on that experience, “I felt my legs were praying.”

There was something futile, even absurd yesterday as we gathered in the courtyard here at Grace, around a small forge and anvil and watched as Lutheran Pastor turned Blacksmith Jeff Wild cut up the barrel of gun and reshaped it into a gardening trowel. There was something futile and absurd about those who stepped up to the anvil and struck the hot iron with a hammer, slowly transforming that metal into a usable tool. 

Such actions do not effect meaningful change. To many they might seem less than helpful, worthy only of spite and ridicule. But to those who were present and participated, what we did was more than gesture. It was prayer. It was also a powerful demonstration of faith that the God in whom we believe, the God we worship is a God of justice and peace, bringing into existence, forging, if you will, a new world in which God reigns triumphant in justice.

What we did yesterday was try to imagine the vision of the prophet Isaiah as he looked around the destruction and suffering in his world and offered an alternative: 

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 

We may be fearful; we may lose hope. As we watch the news and worry about what is to come, it may seem that the world that is emerging is a more dangerous place, that the future bodes ill with climate change, war and violence, the rise of fascism across the world. It may seem that the actions we take, whether by voting, or protesting, or beating hot iron into a gardening trowel make little difference, cannot stem the tide of hatred and evil.

It may even seem that our prayers for justice, for peace, for equality fall on deaf ears or are empty words that mean nothing and are powerless against the forces of evil and death. The two women who spoke yesterday, Lashea Jackson and Wendy Thompson, didn’t give up hope. In the midst of their trauma, they helped to create a support group for other victims of gun violence, helping others like themselves to cope with their pain.

Rooting our cries for justice in prayer is a profound act of faith. It is an expression of our belief that the God who created us and the universe is a just God. It is a proclamation that death is not the end but that the one who died on the cross to show us the way of salvation and to save us, conquered evil and death, was raised, and reigns eternally.

To pray with our feet, to cry for justice as we persevere in prayer, deepens our relationship with God. Like the apparent futility of beating one gun barrel into a gardening tool, prayer bears witness to our faith that God is a God of justice. It proclaims that we believe God hears our prayers, and the cries of all those who suffer, that God is making things new, that God’s reign will come. Thanks be to God.

A Report to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee on Land Acknowledgement and Native American Relationships

Diocesan Task Force on Land Acknowledgement

Let us pray.

O Great Spirit, God of all people and every tribe,
through whom all people are related;
Call us to the kinship of all your people.
Grant us vision to see,
the brokenness of the past;
Help us to listen to one another,
in order to heal the wounds of the present;
And give us courage, patience, and wisdom to work together
for healing and hope with all of your people,
now and in the future.
Mend the hoop of our hearts and let us live in
justice and peace
through Jesus Christ,
the One who comes to all people
that we might live in dignity. Amen.  (From the Episcopal Church, Resources on the Doctrine of Discovery)

In the US calendar, Monday, October 10 is traditionally known as Columbus Day, the day when Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World was celebrated. In more recent years, and in the State of Wisconsin, it is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, set aside to celebrate and honor the histories, cultures, and resilience of Native Americans and to commemorate the suffering they have endured over the last five hundred years. As we gather for Diocesan Convention this year, we have been challenged to examine our history and our relationships with the people who lived on this land before us and whose descendants live among us now. Last year’s convention passed this resolution: 

That the 109th Convention of the Diocese of Milwaukee direct the Bishop to appoint a task force of no fewer than eight (8) persons to examine the historical and contemporary relationships among the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and the Indigenous Peoples of the State, with specific attention to restorative actions the diocese and member congregations can enact; and be it further that the task force bring to the 110th Convention a full report, written and oral, including specific attention to policies that the Diocese can enact, and be it further, that the first meeting of the task force take place no later than February 1, 2022. 

As the author (in consultation from several other interested clergy) of the resolution, I invited interested parties to meet via zoom. We met approximately six times in 2022, working on developing a page of resources for the diocesan website, and crafting language around land acknowledgement. In this brief report, I would like to summarize some highlights of that work and introduce the statement we have created. I would also like to offer some recommendations for congregations that want to undertake this work for themselves.

The history of the relations of white settler colonialism and the native populations of the Americas is complex and tragic. It’s estimated that the population of Native Peoples decreased by as much as 80% after European arrival due to disease and conflict. The Doctrine of Discovery, first promulgated by Papal Edicts and reaffirmed in the early 21st century by US Supreme Court decisions, meant that the land on which Native populations had lived for millennia was free for the taking by colonial powers and European settlers. Currently, there are 3.7 million people of Native background living in the US, 1.1% of the total US population; they have lost 99% of the land they once occupied. 

For Wisconsin Episcopalians, our history begins with the Oneida. This year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Wisconsin Oneida, forced to leave their homes in New York State. Many of the first group of Oneida to come to Wisconsin were Episcopalian, and on October 29, there will be a 200th anniversary celebration at Holy Apostles’ Episcopal Church, in Oneida, Wisconsin.

The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee covers land that was originally home to Potawatomie, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk peoples. The Potawatomie and Ho-Chunk still have a presence within the area covered by the Diocese of Milwaukee and there are in all twelve federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin.

Land Acknowledgement is a movement to recognize those who lived on the land we now possess, who were forced to cede it, and removed to reservations. In many cases, their descendants continue to live among us and around us, not just on reservations but in our cities and towns. But land acknowledgement is only a first step as we begin to do the hard work of building relationships and recognize all the ways we have benefited from the seizure of land. St. Dunstan’s, Madison shows us one way forward as they committed $5000 as a land tax, offering it to the Wisconsin tribes as an act of reparations. The Wisconsin Council of Churches, working with the Wisconsin Intertribal Repatriation Council is establishing a fund to support all of Wisconsin’s tribes. Congregations and individuals can donate.

Our group came up with the following statement that we share here and encourage you to reflect on:

The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2022.  We are also remembering the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Episcopalians in what is now Wisconsin, members of the Oneida tribe who were forced to relocate from their home in upstate New York. As a diocese we celebrate their witness and faithful presence over the years and lament the ways that those in the church descended from European settlers have not lived up to Jesus’ call to love and learn from our Indigenous siblings in faith.

As Episcopalians and as residents of Wisconsin, we live, work, and worship on land that was not ours but belonged to peoples who had lived here for thousands of years: the Potawatomie, the Sauk and Fox, the HoChunk, the Menominee. We confess the Episcopal Church’s complicity in the seizure of land, the abrogation of treaties, and the forced removal of the land’s inhabitants to make room for white settlers. We also confess the Episcopal Church’s participation in the native boarding school system that separated children from their parents, abused and killed students, and sought to purge them of their language, culture, and heritage. We confess as well the generational trauma that indigenous people continue to suffer and a system that continues to oppress them.

The actions of the US government, settlers, and Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, led to the deaths of many from genocide, poverty, and disease. We honor those elders. We recognize the endurance of their descendants here today and honor the elders of today. We, the descendants and beneficiaries of settler colonialism, owe attention, time, and resources to those from whom we have stolen so much.

We commit to listening and reconciliation and friendship. We commit to being good neighbors to them and to their sovereign nations. We pray that God forgives us and give us courage and strength to take the necessary steps toward reconciliation, healing, and justice.

Exploring Native American History and building relationships in your congregation.

Questions to begin a conversation in your congregation:

  1. When does your official parish history start?
  2. What do you know about how the land where your church stands was used, before the church was started? Who owned it or lived there?
  3. When and how did that land pass into the hands of white settlers? Are there one or more significant treaties that are part of that history? 
  4. What Native peoples lived on the land before that time? 
  5. Do those Native groups still exist? (Some use different names now – for example: Winnebago and Ho-Chunk.) 
  6. Where do their members live now? What can you find out about how they are working to preserve and pass on their culture, language, and heritage? 

Learning more about the Doctrine of Discovery, the tribes of Wisconsin, and the history of the relations among Christians and native peoples.

  1. The Episcopal Church repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery (a brief youtube video)
  2. Patty Lowe, The Tribes of Wisconsin
  3. The Diocesan Resource page includes many other resources. We encourage you to visit it: https://www.diomil.org/resources/land-acknowledgment/
  4. Native-land.ca (Also an app for phones) Who lived on the land before you?

Members of the Task Force include:

The Rev’d Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser, Rector, Grace Madison
The Rev’d Dr. Miranda Hassett, Rector St. Dunstan’s Madison
The Rev’d Monica Burkert Brist, Priest in Charge, St. Paul’s Watertown
The Rev’d Kathy Monson Lutes, Rector, Trinity, Janesville
The Rev’d Deacon Karen Buker
The Rev’d Peter Irvine
Bevra Cole
Diana Lucas
Susan Burch
Marilyn Hamilton
Lynn MacDonald

Messy Lives, Messy Faith: A sermon for Proper 22C, October 2, 2022

By the rivers of Babylon

Proper 22C

October 2 2022

Today is our annual blessing of the animals. In a few minutes, I will invite those of you have brought pets with you, or if you have photographs, or ashes of deceased beloved animals, to come forward for a blessing. We’ve done this many different ways over the years at Grace, but always on a date close to the feast of St. Francis of Assisi which is observed on October 3. Some years, we have changed our readings so that instead of the regular Sunday lectionary, we read the lessons and prayers appointed for the Feast of St. Francis. 

It’s a messy day, messy liturgically because we are doing multiple and somewhat contradictory things, messy because we have among us dogs and other animals that disrupt the decorum of the church. But I’m always reminded when dogs are among us that altar rails became a thing to prevent dogs from entering the holy space of the altar. You’ll note that we no longer have an altar rail that can do that.

One of the few pluses of the past few years of pandemic is that the messiness of our lives was on display for all to see, thanks to zoom and other technological things. I’m not sure how many times a meeting, or morning prayer was disrupted by kittens or cats running through the house and across the keyboard. Zoom, especially for those of us who never created backgrounds, provided windows into the messiness of our lives, the cracked ceilings, the bookshelves that are disorganized with papers everywhere.

That messiness, and the relationships powerfully symbolized by the pets among us, here or at home, remind us of something else profound, the ways in which our lives, even our spiritual lives don’t always present themselves publicly the way we would want them to. More deeply, we might recognize ways in which we don’t admit the messiness of our spiritual lives to ourselves—those places, those hidden things that we don’t like to be reminded of, or confess but have a way of revealing themselves to us, and often to others, at inopportune moments.

Last week’s gospel, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, confronted us with the ways in which we fail to live up to the gospel imperative to love and care for others. We have all walked past homeless people, turning our heads away, offering nothing to panhandlers. In today’s readings, we are confronted with something else entirely, but perhaps even more challenging.

The reading from Lamentations, and Psalm 137, reflect the pain and suffering of a defeated people, forced into exile. Both bear witness to the deep distress and spiritual upheaval caused by military defeat and forced removal. We know about this, if only from the images and stories from the war in Ukraine: cities, cultural and historical monuments destroyed, thousands killed, millions forced to flee.

The texts convey the pain. Lamentations, written by someone who witnessed the devastation, saw the ruined buildings, the empty streets, the destroyed temple. The psalm, written by an exile poet, expressing their deep distress, their crisis of faith:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.

2 As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.

3 For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

4 How shall we sing the Lord’S song *
upon an alien soil.

These beautiful, tragic words echo across the millennia. They describe not only the experience of the Babylonian exiles but also the experiences of millions of others over that vast expanse of time, forced from their homes by war, famine, natural disaster, and now climate change. 

But that’s not all. The pasalm ends on a very different note, one so violent that I did not include the its last verse in our service bulletin. It speaks of bloody and violent vengeance, calling down God’s wrath on the conquerors. And that too is part of the experience of victims of war and other forms of violence—the desire to get back, to punish. That’s part of the messiness of human life, too.

Still, there’s something important that neither the psalm nor the reading from Lamentations mentions. The experience of defeat and exile was not only about mourning and desire for revenge. It was also about something else. Something radical, transformational happened while the exiles were in Babylon. In the ancient world, if a people were defeated in war, it meant not only the conquerors were more powerful, it also meant that the conquerors gods were more powerful than the defeated people’s gods. Usually, always, the defeated people lost their religion and their culture, being subsumed into the larger more powerful conquering culture.

In the case of the Babylonian exiles, that didn’t happen. They reflected on their experiences and as they reflected, they came to a new understanding of their God and what it meant to be faithful to that God. And when they returned from exile, they brought that new understanding, and newly created scriptural texts back to Jerusalem with them, and in doing so forged a new faith that would carry them, and their Jewish descendants, through the millennia, down to the present.

In the gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” It’s something we all might ask; something we can imagine those people forced from their homes millennia ago, or people forced from their homes today, might ask. Faced with the prospects of having to abandon homes, or with the prospect of rebuilding lives after hurricanes, as people across the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, South Carolina are facing today, feelings of despair, doubt, may seem natural. For us, too, faced with our own struggles, the suffering in the world, we may be overwhelmed by despair, we may feel helpless, powerless. But what little faith we have, the messy faith we have, may be enough. Jesus is there, among the suffering, the victims of violence, war, and natural disaster, Jesus is here with us, in the midst of whatever struggles we are facing. Jesus’ arms pick us up when we fall down; he carries us when we are too weak, he brings us to this table where we feast with him. Thanks be to God.