Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10
It is hard when reading or hearing Habakkuk not to identify with the prophet and his times. The anguish of historical living, or living in time, is that each one of us is endowed with a sense of justice and fairness, but often we must live with and face so much injustice that seems unchangeable or beyond our ability to change. Who among us is not affected by the relentless negative political ads that have invaded the airways in the last month? Or the all-too-familiar reports of terrorists threats? Or the violence within our own communities of children and spouses killing one another? Who isn’t affected by the reality that the Iraq War now has caused hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions, of people to become displaced from their homes? Or the increasing numbers of people in the world who are dying from hunger? Or the staggering unemployment rates all across our nation? Who among us has not wanted to lament with Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” On the face of things, it can seem that “the law has become slack and justice never prevails.” Habakkuk’s complaint is strikingly like that of the prophets before him and those who have come after him. He voices a prayer that could be sung by any of us who have called out in earnest for God but have felt that God was absent, distant, or not interested in the prayer.
I’ve always been amazed at how the biblical writers had a way of articulating and capturing humanity’s dance with God—this movement between feeling lost to and forgotten by God and God’s response to our cries and complaints. If I had to pick a dance that would best describe the movement I am talking about, it would be the tango. Now, before you start wondering about my dance expertise, I need you to know that I know nothing about dancing and less about the tango. But, on occasion, I do watch Dancing with the Stars and I am quite taken by the tango—especially the Argentine Tango. It seems to me, that this particular dance embodies passion: intensity surrounded by grace; a sharpness offset by a type of fluidity; a closeness with respect to space and openness; and finally the interaction of being lost then found. As I look back over the biblical writers’ descriptions of their experience with God, I see these same themes: passion, intensity, grace, sharpness, fluidity, closeness, space, openness, being lost and then found. It is our human experience—our dance with the Divine. Habakkuk was fully engaged in the dance. When he cried out to God, “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” he was feeling the intensity and sharpness of God’s absence. He was feeling the distance rather than the closeness between God and God’s people. And all he knew to do was to cry out with all his heart to a God that he dared to believe would listen to his complaint.
While it may not seem like it at first glance, Zacchaeus is dancing the tango just like Habakkuk. Maybe he is dancing the American tango rather than the Argentinean but, nonetheless, he is in the dance. In reading his story, one can feel the intensity surrounded by grace, the sharpness offset by compassion, the distance seeking closeness. He is lost—lost in a system that is destroying not only his soul but the lives of all who are living under the oppressive government of the Roman Empire. And every indication in Zacchaeus’ story would lead us to believe that he was tired of feeling lost. Why else would he have climbed up in that sycamore tree hoping to see Jesus? He wanted to be found.
Of all the people in the crowd that day, it is no accident that Jesus called out Zacchaeus. In doing so, Jesus knowingly engages the larger system of power and privilege, calling out its injustices. When Jesus beckons to Zacchaeus, it’s not just to create a personal connection with a particular believer. No, Jesus opens an opportunity to redeem someone deeply involved in an oppressive system, thereby creating the potential to redeem the system itself. It is the way Jesus works.
On Friday I went on road trip with Robert McMillan, Mary Prather, Lou Rosser, and another woman who is not a member of Pullen to Meadows, NC. If you don’t know where Meadows is, I can’t help you. Ask Robert. We went to Meadows because Robert wanted us to taste the local cuisine—fried pork rinds, home cooked vegetables, fried chicken and fish, every homemade cake known to humanity—a Weight Watchers nightmare. The food was good, but the conversation on the way home was even better. On the way home, we got into an animated and heated age-old debate: Is God a personal God or not? Does God care about what happens to me specifically or is God a God who is solely concerned about humanity as a whole—the systems and structures of this world? I immediately thought of the story of Zacchaeus since I had been studying it for this sermon. While I didn’t voice it, the question of, “Did God call out Zacchaeus because he cared about Zacchaeus or because of what Zacchaeus represented?” rolled around in my thoughts as we debated. As you can imagine, having four Pullenites and a self-proclaimed agnostic in the car, both sides of the debate were well represented throughout the conversation. But, in the end, Robert offered a third way for us to consider this timeless question of a personal God versus a non-personal God. He said, “It doesn’t really matter. God is a mystery and we will never know. But regardless of how you look at it, God is real; and where there is love in us or in the world, God is there.” I think Robert is right. And like Zacchaeus, in those moments when we open our hearts to Jesus’ teachings and truth, it is then that we allow God to work through us to transform the systems of our world.
Without Jesus asking him to do anything but host his stay, Zacchaeus makes a candid and even lavish offer, showing that he knows the potential for people in his position to abuse the system. He said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Beyond what Zacchaeus himself offers to do to make amends for his own acts, this encounter with Jesus provides a deeper potential to redeem the system itself. Here applies what I now call “The Robert Rule”: When we allow God’s love to change us there is a deeper potential for God’s love to redeem the larger systems of our world. And when our systems are redeemed, people are redeemed. The two are inseparable. Zacchaeus’ changed heart is a sign of the kingdom that is at the center of Jesus’ proclamation. When we allow our hearts to change and be transformed, then we become signs of the kingdom that is still at the center of Jesus’ proclamation. Our larger systems can and do oppress, but Zacchaeus refines the way he carries out his role, becoming part of what God’s more equitable community should look like. And we are called to do the same. The salvation Jesus proclaims is not just for Zacchaeus—it’s not just a personal salvation; it is for the world, too— for the systems and structures that make our world– and for the people. What Zacchaeus teaches us is that bold individual acts can resonate broadly to spread the reign of God and its blessings widely and deeply. My best response to that age-old debate is that God is both—a personal God and a God of the larger whole. The two are inseparable.
This time of year, we often struggle with a parallel to the question of to what degree does God know us as individuals or as a larger creation: what is the importance of one’s individual contributions to the larger whole? Zacchaeus makes this real. It is a very present parallel as we prepare to bring our individual offerings and commitments for 2011 as an act of our worship today. It is human nature to sometimes question the value of what it is that we have to offer as individuals—to ask: Does my contribution of time, talent, or money really make a difference in the grand scheme of things? In a congregation of over 600 people do they really need my time? In a budget of nearly 1 million dollars does my $25.00 a week really matter? To these questions, I would simply encourage you to apply the Robert Rule: When we allow God’s love to change us there is a deeper potential for God’s love to redeem the larger systems of our world. And when our systems are redeemed, people are redeemed. The two are inseparable. When you wonder if your part really matters or if you really matter, hold your wondering and yourself in the presence of God’s love as you wait for an answer.
When all was going to hell in Habakkuk’s world—when all seemed lost—God told him, write the vision and make it plain. Some days, especially lately, it can feel as though our world is lost. So here is a vision as plain as I can make it: We will be a church where every person who enters our doors will experience God’s love; that all who feel lost will feel found here in this community; that together, we will allow God’s love to continue to transform our lives thus believing in the potential for God’s love to redeem the larger systems of our world; and finally, when justice seems far off, we will be a people who live by our faith. May such a vision be worthy of our time, talents, and money!