Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Proper 26 C- Sunday October 30, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Proper 26, Year C - Sunday - October 30, 2016

Zaccheus by Maxim Sheshukov

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. His days of earthly ministry will soon be coming to an end. Along the way, people are clamoring to see him and hear him, and be touched by him, wanting to be healed. Just before his encounter with Zacchaeus, before he entered Jericho, Jesus heard a blind man shouting to him insistently, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops and responds, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Zacchaeus did not cry out to Jesus like the blind man, but in the act of climbing that tree, he too reached out to Jesus, and Jesus responded. Imagine Jesus standing before you, asking “What do you want me to do for you?” What would you say? What do you desire? As I prayed with this story, that is what welled up inside me as the crucial question: What do you desire? Knowing honestly and humbly what our deepest desires are is central to how we live our lives and to our relationship with God.

At the core of our relationship with God is prayer. It is our desires that lie at the heart of our prayer lives. In their wonderful book, Primary Speech, Ann and Barry Ulanov write that “all prayer begins with desire. Desire comes in many forms. At its best, desire in prayer is what Augustine calls an ‘affectionate reaching out to God.’ We long for contact, for connection at the center, that grounding that brings full-hearted peace of mind and soul. We want to be in touch with what lives within everything that matters, with what truly satisfies.” We reach out, as did all those who asked, who begged, for Jesus to stop and heal them, who stretched out their arms to touch his cloak, who dug a hole through a roof to be dropped at Jesus’s feet. And as Zacchaeus did in climbing that tree, we yearn to make contact with God. And, God yearns to make contact with us, or, more correctly, he yearns for us to respond to his desire for us, his love for us.

It is quite essential to recognize that the desire within us is God’s desire. We respond - or we don’t respond - to God’s call to us. God is calling to us all the time and is the initiator of our prayer. Our most basic task in climbing our own tree toward God is to listen and respond to God, to make ourselves available to God. Of course, we are busy people, with things we need to be doing, places we need to go, and people we need to see, so this simple act of being available to God can be challenging. As the Ulanovs put it, “All of us have trouble finding the time to pray. We solve the problem...best when we begin where we are… For some of us praying starts anytime… It may be when we are jogging, doing exercises, or taking a bath. Or when we are cooking… or when we bend over our baby’s crib… when we ride the bus or subway or work in the garden, or when we sit and stare into space… Some of us pray only when we cry or are desperate and afraid…  Some of us pray only in church in the safety of set prayers or prayers vocalized for us. We must each begin in the way that comes to us, for in that way God is approaching us and knocking on our door.” So, make yourself available to God, begin where you are.

A second important element toward responding to God’s call, God’s desire, and climbing that tree is to trust in God. Those are easy words, but to truly put all your trust in God is a great challenge and a great risk. Zacchaeus took a great risk. He, while viewed as a sinner and a collaborator by others, was also a man of wealth and status, who would have dressed well and would normally not be seen climbing a tree. By doing so, he certainly risked making a spectacle of himself in front of everyone. He risked falling. 

Ultimately, he risked admitting the wrongs he had committed, and he risked changing his life, with the likely loss of income, status, friends, and security. There is a lot of inertia that keeps us where we are, and without fully trusting in God, things will not change. Think about how much of what we do is governed by others’ expectations, by advertising and social pressures - our choices in careers, clothing, food, or recreation, for instance. We want to fit in, we want to succeed, but conforming is quite often inconsistent with true Gospel living. Going against the grain can be very hard, climbing a tree for all to see is risky. But the reward can be very great, as Zacchaeus experienced when Jesus came into his home.

So, prayer and trust must be cultivated so that our desire for God can flourish. The third piece I want to highlight is what the Ulanovs described as “connection at the center.” God dwells at the center of each of us, and God desires to be whole; thus, we are drawn toward each other and toward God, toward unity. That is the fundamental root of our desire. It is what Quakers call the Light Within. It is expressed in love: the love of committed relationships, of parenting, of ministering to the poor and needy.

It is the source of that fleeting, intense feeling of unity and peace that we sometimes experience in the astounding beauty of the earth or a work of art or a piece of music. It is what drew Zacchaeus up into that tree and has drawn people of all kinds and in all ages toward God.

In his powerful 1942 book, A Testament of Devotion, Quaker Thomas R. Kelly writes, “The Inner Light, the Inward Christ, is no mere doctrine, belonging [just] to a small religious fellowship, to be accepted or rejected as mere belief. It is the living Center of Reference for all Christian souls and Christian groups - yes, and of non-Christian groups as well - who seriously mean to dwell in the secret place of the Most High. He is the center and source of all action, not the endpoint of thought. He is the locus of commitment, not a problem for debate. Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma. And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots.”

The root is our desire. It can lead us to climb the tree with Zacchaeus and receive, or perhaps become, those fruits. But we can do so only if we listen and respond to God’s being within us, God’s desire for us, made known to us in our prayer and in our relationships with others, the members of the body of Christ. And we can respond to God meaningfully only if we put our trust completely in God so that we are willing to risk falling, or failing, risk the discomfort of change; and, we can respond only if we let the light within us - God within us - be the center and source of all our actions. 

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