Seeing and being seen: A lesson in community

Luke 19:1-10

Almost half my lifetime ago, I left my newspaper editor’s job in cold, wintery Bismarck, N.D., to serve overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up in Kenya, in Eastern Africa, where Peace Corps, at my request, trained me to become a water technician.

For the first 10 weeks in Kenya, I lived in the central part of the country, attending classes every day, with the greatest focus on cultural and language training. At the end of that time, I was fairly proficient in KiSwahili, the national language. And then Peace Corps, in its wisdom, sent me out to the western part of the country to live and serve among the Luo peoples.

I wasn’t in my village but a few days before I realized that the Swahili I had labored so hard to master wasn’t quite the same Swahili the Luos spoke. I had learned classical KiSwahili; the Luos spoke something I later learned was called “dirty Swahili.” The former is highly technical and intricate; the latter is very simple and ignores all rules of grammar.

Which meant that my training, which had led me to believe that I could live and move and have my being among the Luo, was insufficient at best, a barrier at worst.

Kenya

All this became crystal clear to me within my first week in my village. Wherever I went, whenever I spoke Swahili, people looked at me in confusion. I couldn’t communicate that well, despite my high score on my language exam.

Worst of all, I could not properly greet people.

And greeting people, in Africa as in much of the world, is a very important part of life. Whether you greet them … how you greet them … even if you are just walking down the street (or the dirt path, if you live in much of the developing world) … all of those things place you in society. So if you can’t properly greet people, you really don’t have a place … you don’t know where you belong … or even whether you belong.

One morning, as I was walking down a dirt road, an old woman – and I mean, an old woman, with frizzy little tufts of grey hair on her head and a face filled with wrinkles and dark, dark eyes that peeked out from between those wrinkles – one morning, this woman greeted me on the road.

“I see you,” she said.

I was so startled that she spoke to me in English that I didn’t respond at first. I simply while I thought, I see you? What kind of greeting is that?

So I responded in kind.

“Um, I see you?” I replied, questioningly.

The woman smiled at me and stood there and waited for me to go on.

“Um, how are you?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.

“I am here,” she said.

OK, I thought.

“I am here, too,” I replied, thinking, Isn’t that obvious? We’re standing in the middle of a dirt road, face to face. Of course you’re here. Of course I’m here!

“It is good to be seen,” she said.

And then we began to talk, mixing Swahili, the version I didn’t really know well, and DhuLuo, the tribal language that I really didn’t know yet, and English, which she didn’t know well, and somehow she managed to teach me that in her tribe, as in much of Africa, a proper greeting begins with, “I see you.”

The proper response is, “I am here. I see you.”

The one who began the conversation concludes the greeting with, “I am here. It is good to be seen!”

In much of Africa, this greeting is what gives people life and builds community. You don’t walk down the street and ignore people – you see them. And by seeing them, you do more than acknowledge their presence in the same piece of earth that you occupy. You acknowledge their whole being. You grant them meaning. You name them as part of your community.

As we parted, she in her direction and I in mine, I realized: I had just been introduced to a whole new way of being.

I was seen.

Therefore I belonged.

And I saw.

Therefore the other person belonged as well.

Yes indeed, it is good to be seen!
• • •
Seeing and being seen is what today’s Gospel lesson is all about.

We have Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, the wee little tax collector who was so anxious to see Jesus that he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see over the people in the crowd.

Now most of the time, the focus for this story is on Zaccheus giving away half his fortune and paying back four times what he might owe to people because he had defrauded them. That focus centers on Zaccheus’ conversion and subsequent repentance for the wrongs he had done.

But this story is not so much about repentance as it is about inclusion. Or, more accurately, about God’s wild, radical, inexplicable inclusion of all of God’s beloved children, no matter what the world might think of them or how the world might treat them.

Zaccheus and Jesus

Zaccheus, remember, was the chief tax collector in Jericho; therefore he was:
(a) Rich. Luke says so;
(b) Despised. Tax collectors, as all who witnessed this event knew, were employees of the oppressive Roman government. Any Jew who worked for the Romans was considered a traitor. Any Jew who collected taxes for the Romans, thus keeping the Romans in power, was a double traitor; and
(c) Pretty much an outcast in his own society. See (a) and (b) above.

So when Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree – where he really had no business being, since he was both a grownup and a powerful man – Jesus was setting, yet again, another example of God’s incredible love, even for those whom society does not love.

Jesus teaches us, yet again, that God’s love trumps society’s hate. You see, society would have preferred that Jesus ignore that little traitor up in the tree, and society expected the Jesus would never have gone to that little traitor’s house, much less eaten with him.

But Jesus never paid much attention to what society wanted, did he? Instead of letting society dictate to him, Jesus dictates to society. He declares who is good, who is worthy. He determines who belongs, who is part of the community.

So what if society despises this wee little man? Jesus doesn’t.

So what if society has judged this tax collector and found him wanting? Jesus doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus declares that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham – a beloved child of God!

Jesus saw Zaccheus and declared him good.

Take that, society!

Jesus demonstrates to and for us an in-your-face, I-really-don’t-care-what-society-thinks radical hospitality that declares, once and for all, that all of us – that each of us – is a beloved child of God. That all of us and each of us belongs to God. That our community is in and with and through God – because God said so!

How many times have we declared that someone is not welcome in our community, is not one of “us”? We’ve all done it – we decide that because someone is different, looks different, sounds different, smells different, that he or she cannot come in to our community.

And how many times have we been told that we do not belong, that we can’t come in, that we are not welcome in a community? That has happened to all of us as well.

But both stances – saying no and being told no – violate the very image of God in which we are created.

We are created in God’s image of love, because we are not necessary to God (God was before we were and will be after we are, so we can’t possibly be necessary), and God’s image of community (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, always together). Since God created us in God’s image, God gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. And since God never votes anyone off the island, and God never says, “You I love; you … eh …” we are called to do the same. To include people.

To see others – really see them …

… and to be seen.

I see you, Jesus said to Zaccheus

I am here. I see you, Zaccheus replied.

I am here. It is good to be seen! Jesus said.

Zaccheus’ story is a lesson in community – in God’s community, and how God wants us to be in community. It’s a reminder that we don’t get to make the rules; God does.

God sees each and every one of us, welcomes us into the household of God, makes room for us, sits down and eats a meal with us.

And then God asks us to do the same. God asks us to see each other not for what we think they are, but for what God knows they are: God’s beloved children.

It indeed is good to be seen!

Amen.

A sermon preached at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Richmond, Va., on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2010, Proper 26, Year C.

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Joel 2:23-32

On Friday afternoon, about 4 p.m., Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary burned down. Within minutes, the entire chapel was on fire. Within an hour, it was gone. By nightfall, the walls were all that remained standing – although the fire department warned that they could yet collapse.

The historic Great Commission window in the VTS chapel, before the fire.

Most of the windows, many given by graduating classes, are gone, from the great stained glass depiction behind the altar with the inscription Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel, which inspired thousands of worshippers and had its Robert E. Lee-look alike St. Peter, to the great Tiffany window of St. Paul testifying in chains. Some windows melted, some exploded. All that is left are jagged openings from which many of us watched water pour as the firefighters fought the two-alarm blaze. On Saturday, we learned that apparently, the six-toed Jesus at the back did survive after all.

The altar rail that was sent from Liberia in the late 1800s is gone, as is the altar table and the organ, which seemed to burn for hours.

Everything in the sacristy was destroyed, from the patens and chalices and old, time-worn prayerbooks to “Anna Baptist,” the baby doll that thousands of us used to learn how to baptize children.

Gone, too, is the pulpit, from which were spoken great soaring sermons meant to inspire us and not-so-great sermons given by preachers who were literally quaking in their boots, and which many of us thought would collapse a few years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina pounded and swayed and called us yet again to realize the dream not of Dr. King but of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Immanuel Chapel, the home in three-year cycles for thousands of seminarians for the past 129 years, the place that nurtured us and then sent us into the world to preach the Gospel, is no more.

This is a time for great mourning among the Seminary community. It is a time of great sadness.

But already, the community is giving thanks.

Thanks that no one was in the chapel at the time and thus no lives were lost. Thanks that none of the dozens of firefighters were injured. Thanks that none of the surrounding buildings were damaged. And yes, thanks that the great cross still towers above the ruins.

And already, it is a time for the community to dream.

To dream of the new chapel that will rise from those ashes. To dream of better access and better bathrooms. To dream of the unknown possibilities that make up those dreams, and that inspire us to new heights, not just of how to glorify God through our worship, but how to glorify God with our lives.

It is as though the prophet Joel were writing this morning just for those of us who loved that Chapel.

“Then afterward,” Joel wrote – meaning after the great calamity which in his day was famine brought on by an invasion, either of real locusts or of the locusts known as Babylonias –  “afterward,” the Lord says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

VTS Chapel after the fire.

In other words, God says to us through the prophet Joel, despite the calamity of your life, do not lose hope.

In other words, God says, do not let the tragedy overcome you. Overcome the tragedy instead, because I the Lord am pouring out my Spirit upon you, because your young are prophesying and seeing visions, and your old are dreaming dreams.

Even in the midst of despair – over an economy that will not get its feet back under itself, over wars that are claiming thousands of lives, over injustice and oppression in Sudan and Congo and Zimbabwe, over enduring desperation and a sudden, deadly outbreak of cholera in Haïti, over hatred in the Middle East and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, over stubborn unemployment and devastating housing foreclosures – even in the midst of all that can send us plummeting into the pit of despair, we are not to give up. We do not lose hope.

Because God’s spirit is pouring over us, and because we are prophesying and dreaming and seeing visions, and therefore, we shall overcome. We shall have new life. That is where God’s Spirit, which is being poured out abundantly over us, leads us: to new life.

But only if we live into those prophecies, those dreams, those visions.

My friends, let’s be plain here: This is our calling in life. To take the gifts God gives us in the Spirit – the prophecies, the dreams, the visions – and to make them happen.

We – who are the beloved children of God – we – who are created in God’s image of love and community – we – who are created to live in love and in community – we are the ones who are especially called to make God’s dreams for us come true.

This is not someone else’s call … it is not up to someone else to work on God’s behalf.

It is our call.

It is our mission.

It is, in fact, why we were created.

• • •

I need you to know that I am a missionary. For the last five years, I have served as your missionary in both Sudan and Haïti. I have been an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church, which means I represented you and the entire Episcopal Church wherever I went, whomever I served.

And because I am a missionary, mission is important to me. But I tend to define “mission” a bit differently than most people, because for me, mission is not simply about going into the world, it is not merely about doing things.

For me, “mission” is a way of being.

It is how we live our lives as beloved children of God.

“Mission” encompasses every aspect of our lives, every action we take, every word we speak, even the thoughts we think.

Our mission in life is the result of God creating us in God’s image, and declaring us the beloved.

You see, when God created the heavens and the earth and the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea and the animals of the land, God brought forth man and woman in God’s very own image. God did so not because God needed us, but because God wanted us. Remember, we are not necessary to God – and we know that, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we can’t possibly be necessary to God. Which means that God loved us into being. So the image of God is that of love. And because we are Trinitarians, believing in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always together, never apart, God’s image is that of community.

So we are created in love and community to live in love and community.

The dance of the Trinity

All of which means that each of us is and all of us are God’s beloved children. I’m a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God. And you. And you. And you. And you. You are the beloved. We are the beloved.

Our mission, therefore, is to love. Not just the people and the things we like. Not just the people and the things we know. But all of God’s creation. As fully, as wildly, as radically, as inexplicably, as eternally as God loves us.

We want to make those prophecies and dreams and visions, the ones that come from God and are God’s gift to us … we want all those things to come true?

We have to start with love. And we have to always act as God’s beloved. And we have to always remember that everyone else also is God’s beloved.

If this is how we live our lives, if we always begin and end in love (no matter how hard that is), when tragedy and calamity hit, we will be fine. Not because we are immune – for we are not. But because we know how to move forward. We know that God loves us, and because God loves us, God gives us the prophecies, the dreams, the visions we need to continue bringing God’s love to the world.

God who loved us into being is pouring out God’s Spirit upon us. As the beloved, we have the prophecies, we are dreaming the dreams, we are seeing the visions.

Our job, our mission, is to bring those prophecies and dreams and visions to life. To make them happen. God doesn’t give us everything we need so that we can ignore it. God gives us everything we need so that God’s dream for us can come true.

That seminary chapel that burned down on Friday? The one where I was formed as a priest, where I learned to baptize (with dear Anna Baptist, that unregenerate baby doll), to celebrate and marry and bury people? It is gone now. But the love that built that place, the love that made it a holy place of God? That love remains. And because the love remains, the community will move forward.

We are God’s beloved.

Don’t ever forget that.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 24 October 2010, Year C, at Grace Episcopal Church, Goochland, Va.

 

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God is depending on us

Luke 18:1-8

There are times when our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to teach us something and to do so, he tells us a parable – and then he pretty much leaves us to figure out what the parable means in all its aspects, and we often end up … confused.

This morning is one of those times.

The parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge is one most of us have heard before. Jesus tells his disciples to pray always

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

and not to lose heart, and then illustrates that command with a parable that at first blush seems to back up his instructions.

But then we take a deeper look at it, and we think, “Wait a minute.”

Are we being told that God doesn’t answer our prayers unless we storm the gates of heaven, that God pays no attention to the first time, the second time, the third, the fourth, the fifth time we pray?

Are we being told that God is like this unjust judge, who only gave in to the widow because he didn’t want a black eye (that’s the literal translation from the Greek of “wear me out”)? That God only answers our prayers in order to avoid being publicly embarrassed (as if that were even possible)?

At first blush, those do seem to be the points of the parable.

Thankfully, the parable is about neither of those points.

We do not need to storm the gates of heaven repeatedly, hoping that eventually, God will pay attention. (God hears us the first time we pray.) And we do not need to worry about whether God is just or unjust. (We know God is just, because if God were not just, God would not be God.)

This parable, my friends, is about the kingdom of God on earth. It is about God’s will being done. It is about God’s justice reigning in this world.

Only by turning this parable over and focusing on the widow and what she does in the face of great injustice do we figure that out.

You see, in the days when our Lord Jesus Christ walked the earth, widows had nothing. They had no rights – no right to speak in public, no right to property, no right to testify in a court of law. Everything their husbands owned went to the husbands’ male relatives. If those relatives didn’t like the widow, or were greedy and wanted everything for themselves, they could throw the widow out on the street, and there was little the widow could do about it. Because widows had no rights. They had no one to speak for them. No one to stand up for them. No social safety net. No women’s center. No pro bono lawyers – no one.

The widow in this story? It’s obvious that she was all alone. There was no one was standing up for her. She wasn’t getting any justice from her husband’s family … that’s why she was going to the judge repeatedly. No one was taking her side – that’s why she argued before the judge alone. But even when that fool of a judge – and he was a fool, because he wasn’t even smart enough to fear God and he had no respect for anyone in the community – even when he refused repeatedly to hear her case and give her the justice that God demands, the widow refused to quit.

She knew her rights, this widow, the rights that came directly from God. She knew that from the beginning and to the end of time, God was on her side. Throughout the Torah, the Law of Moses, God places special emphasis on caring for widows, orphans and strangers.[1] Eleven times in Deuteronomy alone, God commands his people: Take care of the widows, the orphans and the strangers.  So this widow knew: God was on her side. And no foolish judge was going to stop her from getting what God said was hers.

And therein, my friends, lies the real lesson of this parable:

Do not quit.

Even when the odds are against us, this parable teaches us that we are not to stop working for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

Even when the kingdom seems out of reach, when there seems to be no justice in sight, or love to embrace, or hope to cling to, Jesus tells us to keep trying, to keep pushing. Because one day – one day – when enough people focus on God’s kingdom – and not their own; on God’s justice – and not society’s; on God’s inexplicable, eternal, wild, radical love – and not humanity’s limited, short-sighted, mean-spirited imitation of the same; when people embrace God’s incredible hope – and reject humanity’s hopelessness – when all that happens, God’s justice will roll down like waters and righteousness will flow like an ever-flowing stream.

No matter how hard it seems, Jesus is telling us, no matter how hopeless it seems … do not quit.

So why does Jesus tell us this in the context of a command to pray always?

Because in Jesus’ scheme of life, prayer is more than simply asking for something. Prayer is about doing something. It’s about doing those things for which we pray!

The Statue of Reconciliation, by Josefina de Vasconcellos. It sits amid the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by German air forces during WWII. A replica of this statue was donated by the people of Coventry to the peace garden of Hiroshima.

It is not enough to simply ask God for peace in this world. If we want peace, Jesus says, we’re going to have to work for it. We don’t have peace in this world because there are far too many people who reject it. Those of us who want it, who pray for it, Jesus says, are going to have to work for it.

It is not enough to simply ask to God to watch over those in need this day. If we want people to have enough – not everything, but enough – we are the ones who are going to have to give them enough. This day!

Jesus tells us this parable so that we can understand: We have to actively work for that for which we pray, even when it seems hopeless. Because in God’s scheme of life, there is always hope. There is always justice. There is always love.

I know this. I have witnessed this.

For four years I served as your missionary in Sudan, a war-torn nation where more than 3 million people have died in the last 40-some-odd years of war, and another 5 million people have lost their homes. At one point in Sudan, someone was dying – either in civil war or as a result of civil war – every 6 seconds.

Every day, the people pray for peace. They’ve been praying for peace for decades. But they don’t simply ask God for peace and then sit around passively waiting for it. They work for it! Like the widow in today’s Gospel, they refuse to quit. The odds are against them, the world is pretty much ignoring them, their enemies are salivating over the chance to annihilate them. But they won’t quit working for peace.

Right now – facing yet another civil war that is threatening the lives of nearly 10 million southerners in that divided land – they are working for that peace they so desperately desire. This very day, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan is in this country, seeking the help of the U.S. government and the United Nations, so that they don’t face yet another genocide come January, when South Sudan will vote on whether to become an independent nation. Every day, our brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan, who are related to us not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, not only pray for peace. They work for it.

And this is our mission, too.

This is the mission of the Church:

To actively work for that for which we pray. Even when the world tells us it’s never going to happen. Even when the world conspires to stop us.

Our mission is to never give up.

Whenever we see an injustice, whenever we are encounter hatred, whenever we feel hope slipping away, Jesus says to us: do not quit. Do not give up.

We are supposed to be like the widow in today’s Gospel: Always striving for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s love, for God’s hope.

God is depending on us.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year C, 17 October 2010,  at St. Anne’s Parish, Scottsville, Va.



[1] Exodus 22:22; Deut. 10:18, 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:17, 24:19-21, 26:12-13, 27:19.

 

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