Some of you know that before I went to seminary, I was enrolled in a graduate program in dance. Other than the ballroom dancing classes I was forced to go to as a child–and loathed–, I never went to a dance class until I was in college. I was a jock, not an artist. But I fell in love with the total mind-body experience of dance, and while I’m pretty sure my decision to go into the ministry instead of dance was a wise one, I am grateful for the hours I spent immersed in the music and rhythm and movement.
One of the principles of movement is an awareness of your core, of the axis around which you body moves. If your core is saggy, your turns will be saggy. Preparation for a turn requires a strong foundation, a sending of energy down into the foot and up through the crown of your head. As it turns out, the same can be said for stillness in a yoga pose, like tree pose. Root to rise. In a ballet turn, you find a spot to focus on and keep coming back to that spot as soon as your head makes it around the turn. It keeps you from getting dizzy or nauseous, keeps the world from spinning out of control around you. In the midst of the motion, there is also stillness.
It could be said that our world seems to be spinning out of control, to such an extent that we sometimes feel dizzy, even nauseous. Every day, it seems, there is another sickening news release, another video clip or Wikileak, another poll, another shooting, another explosion, another update on the state of the planet’s climate or resources, another heartbreaking scene of refugees fleeing or civilians bombed. Maybe in your life, things seem to be spinning a bit–new living situations to adjust to, bills that seem to be piling up, relationships somehow off-kilter, perhaps your mental and/or physical health not what you wish it was. And here on the one-year-short-of-the-500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Church seems to be floundering, trying to regain its footing in a rapidly changing world, finding itself in the midst of what church historian Phyllis Tickle called the every-500 year Rummage Sale. What stays, and what needs to go?
We here at Second Congregational Church are in the midst of it all, poised, as we are, on the brink of this rather unorthodox transition model, not exactly sure how it’s all going to work, how we will pay for it, what this next pastor will bring to us and whether it will really make a difference. What will we have to let go of? What new life will we experience? In the midst of all this movement, change, and motion, we too must find the stillness.
The prophet Habbakuk races up to the ramparts in the midst of armies swarming and his society’s unraveling. “I will stand at my watch-post,” he says, “and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.” Like a scene out the Lord of the Rings, the prophet runs upwards against the stream of panicked villagers in Helm’s Deep, pushes his way through crowds and commotion, so that he can reach the rampart and get some perspective that goes beyond his own dizzying worries. He is energized by his longing for some sign from the God he knows will not abandon them, and with heaving chest and gasping breath, he looks out, stands still, and finally is not disappointed.
“Write the vision,” God reveals to him. “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Zacchaeus wanted a vision too. “He wanted to see Jesus, to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he [Zacchaeus?] or he [Jesus?] was short of stature.” The Greek isn’t clear about this, and, being vertically challenged myself, I kind of like both of these options.
At any rate, Zacchaeus runs on ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree to get a better perspective. If you’ve noticed the big sycamore tree next to Wassick’s Tire Store at the end of Depot St., you’ll know that one does not simply leap up into a sycamore tree. This is not some bendy, wavy birch or willow tree. If it was anything like the old tree at Wassick’s, Zacchaeus at the very least would have had to hike up his robes and get a boost from somebody. He really wanted to see Jesus.
And, in the hints and spaces of this story as Luke tells it, [he’s the only one who does] it seems that Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus too, maybe had already “seen” him, in a way that no one else seems to ever have. He sees the obviously wealthy man perched up on the branch of the sycamore tree, and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus’ name in Hebrew means, “pure, innocent, clean,” even “justice.” The exact opposite of what everyone else seemed to think of him. He was a chief tax collector, overseeing the collection of taxes to the Roman Empire from his own people, making his own living by adding on to the proscribed taxes, and then taking his cut from all the tax collectors under him. If ever anyone was “lost” to a sense of righteousness or loyalty to his own community, it was Zacchaeus.
And yet, he stands his ground. “Look,” he says to Jesus, and to the crowd grumbling and pressing in around them, “half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor.” It’s actually present tense–a “customary, repeated practice,” as one scholar says [John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Yr. C] “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much”–way beyond the demands of Torah. Who knew?! Jesus, apparently.
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’” Saving has come–joy, being able to share hospitality, being claimed as part of the community–”a son of Abraham”–salvation has come to this man who had been lost to all that…
…all because Zacchaeus had risked climbing up a sycamore, going out on a limb–of a very strong tree.
Both Habakkuk and Zacchaeus receive grace. Beyond the paralysis and corruption of their culture and situations, they are given new life, a vision of what is possible, they can re-imagine their future. “Authentic grace is not the power to purchase,” as one Baptist pastor says. “It is the stamina for sacrifice.” [Willie Dwayn Francois III, The Christian Century, 10/12/16] The stamina for sacrifice.
In the Stewardship Campaign that Mike introduced us to this morning, he spoke about strengthening the foundations of our ongoing, daily mission and ministry–to put our programs, like Music, Education, and Eaarth Advocacy , on sure footing, to pay our staff decent, just wages, to provide for the ongoing soundness and safety of our building and grounds, to reduce our temporary debt. This is the “rooting down,” so that we can rise into new possibilities for service and ministry. As we look for the vision that God has for us, look for that focal point in our future that calls us “go out on a limb,” to try new things, to worship and serve our God in ways that will reach and bring life to those who feel simply tossed about by the world’s rants and raves, we will also need to build bridges upon which we can cross over into that future. In the Capital Campaign that will be introduced for your consideration and conversation this spring, we’ll talk about what those bridges will need–support for our new co-pastor during the overlap with my time, improvements to our sound and video capabilities, needed work on our building, new ventures into mission. But we want to do that from a place of stillness and stability, like Habakkuk’s rampart and Zacchaeus’ sycamore tree, from a firm foundation that has been laid by the saints before us and the mighty fortress that is our God.
In your own life, what firm foundations can you stand on? The danger, of course, is not going deep enough, below the shifting sands of social currents and trends, below the latest scientific finding. Or the danger of assuming another person can be your bedrock. Alas, that is not deep enough either.
“On Christ, the solid rock I stand,” we’ll sing in a minute., “all other ground is sinking sand.” How do we “stand on Christ”? “Jesus’ blood and righteousness” is not language that most of us usually use. But grounding ourselves in the deep and merciful love of God is something we can practice–through regular, daily times of prayer and meditation, in your room or over your first cup of coffee, in the woods, on a mountain. Through regular body prayer, like yoga or walking or skiing or playing music or singing–letting your mind air out. Through regular gathering with a community of faith like this one–larger than any single individual.
“For there is still a vision for the appointed time,” Habbakuk hears. “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus calls up to Zacchaeus. We must root to rise, and rise we will, into ministries and witness re-imagined for a new day. “Authentic grace…is the stamina for sacrifice,” yes, and it is also amazing. “The righteous–those who are right with God–live by their faith, their trust in God.” And the Son of Humanity–the Divine coming to inhabit human flesh–came to seek out and to save the lost.” With faith, with stamina, with vision, there is no limit to what God can do through us. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark