Sermon at Calvary Church, Williamsville, NY
How long, O Lord, will I cry, until you listen? How long, cries Habbakuk, how long until I know peace, and mercy, and justice? Or, as The Message puts it, âHow many times do I have to yell, âHelp! Murder! Police!â before you come to the rescue? God answers the prophet by saying, the time is coming â donât give up, wait and hope, help is coming right on time!
Most of us in this nation are waiting for better days, for relief from poverty, for a renewed sense of the common good, and an end to the political vitriol and hateful, divisive, and destructive speech. That verbal violence is a sign of our collective fear and anxiety that the world will never be healed. We quiver and quake, and instead of persevering in the search for justice, we yell at anyone and everything. Some of the yelling will end after election day, but certainly not all of it.
Weâve been here before â remember the Israelites wandering in the desert? They whined and grumbled more than they shouted and cursed, but nevertheless their courage failed. What does Habbakuk say? â the spirit of the proud has failed, but the righteous live by their faith. Itâs clearer in that same version called The Message: âLook at that man, bloated by self-importance â full of himself but soul-empty.â
I think I met that guy on the airplane coming up here. He sat next to me, by the window, listening to music or playing with his phone during the flight. When it came time to get off the plane, I stepped into the aisle and got my suitcase down out of the overhead, and then tried to sit back down to put something else in it. By then the aisle was full. This guy was trying to get out but I excused myself and sat down. He managed to put up with that for a few seconds. He obviously wanted to get out, but there wasnât any place for either of us to stand in the aisle. So he just pushed out past me and pushed some others out of his way â by God, he was going to get his bag down and get out of that airplane ahead of as many of us as possible! It wasnât until later that it dawned on me that heâd had three alcoholic drinks in less than an hourâs flight â he couldnât have been completely rational. He was indeed âsoul-emptyâ as that translation puts it. He was filled with anger and violence, but those of us around him had no idea why.
We often do cry out for justice and relief in the face of the worldâs violence. Habakkuk seems to say that weâre simply to wait and have faith that eventually justice will triumph. Paul has the same reminder for his fellow Christians in Thessalonika â âIâm bragging about your perseverance and steady living â hang in there!â
Youâve been there, too â crying, âhow long, O Lord?â or âgive us justice, Lord, and hurry up!â In the beginning, this congregation really struggled to get going, and just a few years after the first priest was assigned, he died saving a parishioner from drowning. Her husband died too. During the Great Depression your numbers fell precipitously, and you carried on with lay readers leading Morning Prayer. You have endured and persisted whatever has happened in this place. Youâve insisted that thereâs a reason for being the body of Christ here, a reason that looks like the Corner House Nursery School and like working with the local school.
Those times of fear and anxiety will return, but your DNA has been changed in the process â you know what to do. Thatâs one of the greatest gifts you can offer a hurting world. Youâve seen Jesus, youâve experienced resurrection, and you can show it to others.
Thatâs what happens with Zacchaeus. Heâs hungry for some reassurance about his questionable life â he seems to be feeling uncomfortable, maybe even a bit guilty, about the way heâs treated his fellow Jews. His job is to squeeze a whole lot of tax money out of a people under occupation, but he goes beyond that to squeeze more out of them so he can make himself rich. This little crook â small both in physical and moral stature â has heard about Jesus and he wants to see for himself. But in the crowd he canât see, so he climbs up a tree. He seems like the kind of guy whoâd push the kids off a low branch so he could have a space. Jesus spots him and says, âhurry up, Iâm coming to your house TODAY.â After he and Jesus have dinner and a talk, Zacchaeus turns around and starts repairing some of the damage heâs done. His encounter with love incarnate prompts him to share what he has, and repay his ill-gotten gains, four times over. And then that time signature comes up again â Jesus says, TODAY salvation has come to this house.
How long must we wait? Jesus says, âTODAY Iâm coming to your house.â Do we believe it? Have we seen him? Are we climbing trees and going out of our way to look? Today?
In the last few days Iâve had several surprising encounters. I was at a meeting in Washington, DC, Thursday and Friday. During a coffee break, I talked to a young Muslim woman Ph.D. in a headscarf and an amazingly chic outfit, and an American Jew whoâs just finished working for the Israeli health ministry. Our conversation was about schools and science education, and building better communities. She runs a company that makes diagnostic tests more readily available to the poor. He helps rebuild health care systems.
At the same meeting I met another young woman who has started two non-profit pharmaceutical companies. Up until now, thatâs been an oxymoron â pharmaceutical companies have been largely profit-motivated. When I asked to hear more, she told me that sheâd grown up a Lutheran and got frustrated with the world of government grants and the eternal focus in the commercial world on making money. She wanted to do something concrete about the worldâs poverty. Her pharmaceuticals are focused on unmet health needs of women and children. It started with a big donation, but the goal is to make the enterprise self-sustaining. All those folks are doing something to heal the world.
Thatâs what Jesus challenges all of us about. He responded to the brokenness and violence that the prophet talks about by feeding hungry people, healing whatâs broken in their lives, and teaching about Godâs vision for a restored world, whole and at peace once again. He repeatedly insists that that work is possible TODAY, and that weâre not supposed to just put it off â weâre supposed to go looking for opportunities to join in that work of healing the brokenness all around us. Zacchaeus went looking for his own healing. Those of us who encountered that guy on the airplane were eager for healing, but we didnât really know how to offer it, other than just letting him off as soon as possible.
Do we have enough steady faith to insist on healing today, and every day? Are we willing to expect it in the face of the worldâs violence, as well as in people who are obviously healing the world? With Godâs help, we can all participate in that healing. Jesus IS going to turn up today. Are we ready to go climb a tree looking for him, or invite him home for dinner? Are we going to go looking for Zacchaeus?