Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge. Continue reading “Short people got reason to live after all”

The eve of destruction

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 13:1–9

It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.

And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.

Doesn’t sound like good news.

I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.

It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.

There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.

If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”

Children of the (Christmas) Revolution

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on December 20, 2015.

Luke 1:39–55

That’s a heck of a greeting Mary gets from her cousin. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Still, you don’t meet a lot of people who would respond even to that by crying out “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

If you tried that, people would smile pacifically and back slowly away.

On the up side, you’d have that seat on the bus all to yourself.

Seriously, though, did you ever wonder what kind of person Mary really was? We know so little about her, and we have so many agendas. Growing up Methodist I didn’t hear much at all about Mary; we didn’t have pictures of her hanging up in the church, she barely got a mention. Except at Christmas — when suddenly she’s everywhere, loitering on front lawns with her husband and the kings and the lone representative shepherd that came packaged with the Wal-Mart crèche. It’s hard to learn much about her from most of these setups, and those you can… well, let me give you an example.

Take the people who used to live next door to me in my old neighborhood. I knew they were churchgoers, because the bumper sticker on their car said so. They had the polite but stern and unhumoring quality I had learned as a child to associate with certain classes of evangelical Protestant. They had a perfectly maintained lawn that they never, ever used, not even the clean white porch swing in the side yard. And every Christmas they put a crèche out front, a simple one: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manger, and a tiny shelter representing the stable. There may have been an angel; I don’t remember. What made this display noteworthy was that all of them — Jesus, Joseph, and Mary — were represented as babies. It was the complete inversion of the Medieval practice of representing the infant Messiah as a miniature adult, with adult proportions and an adult expression. Out on my neighbors’ lawn, even Mary and Joseph had disproportionately large heads, like babies of almost any mammalian species—it’s how you can tell Charlie Brown is a little boy and not a balding old man, and how the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were made to look safe and innocent instead of weird and scary. Worse, they wore the placidly idiotic expressions of baby dolls. They were cute, like pandas or someone else’s puppy. If they hadn’t been made of cheap plastic they might have been cuddly.

When my former neighbors bought that house and I saw their crèche for the first time, I was not a Christian. I was coming out of a long atheist interlude, drifting in a direction people call “spiritual but not religious” — sensing that something was missing, casting about for it, open to ideas and suggestions and potentially convincing narratives.

What I saw in my neighbors’ front yard was not a potentially convincing narrative.

At best, it was nice. Pleasant. Polite. Sentimental, yes. Safe? Very safe. But I didn’t need pleasant and polite. I didn’t need sentimental. I could find those things elsewhere, plenty of places — and they weren’t enough. I didn’t need a god who was merely pleasant. Although I may not have recognized it at the time, I didn’t need a god who was safe. I needed a god who could shake things up — who could change things — who could change me, who could save me. I needed a god who could kick some butt — mine, when necessary. And that was going to take more than a really super nice guy. It was going to take more than a god who would pick a babydoll to be his mommy.

Now, having been raised Christian, having been exposed in my collegiate singing career to Latin masses and the works of Thomas Tallis, and having studied and written about the Old Order Amish, I was aware that Babydoll Crèche did not represent the full breadth and depth of the Christian experience.

Nevertheless, when I saw that crèche… well, I thought, if these people don’t take their god seriously, why should I? Continue reading “Children of the (Christmas) Revolution”

We walked for miles to see him

I read this poem, or rather story in the form of a poem, in lieu of preaching a sermon on John 6:1–15 at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on July 26. I had no great words of wisdom to offer about the story of the loaves and fishes, and, in any case, I’m a writer, not a preacher.


We walked for miles to see him, this brand-new prophet,
packed a picnic in the dark before dawn:
bread, a little stale; some cheese, a skin of wine,
more than we needed. My wife overpacks.
On my back I bore this feast, beyond
the town, the stubbly fields, into the desert—
the wilderness, she driving me before her
like a damned goat to die. We lived, of course,
but that was later. Meantime the sun shone hot
and hotter as it climbed, as we climbed
one hill after another, to see another valley
void of life and full of rocks, the few
bare bushes brown, and worse than none.
The sky became a vast and cloudless fire
that washed the world to white. We kept our eyes
down on the ground. A lonesome vulture fed
on carrion—though what could have lived here
long enough to die, I could not guess. Perhaps
another prophet, less successful. This one—
This one they all talk about, the one
the fishmonger says is Lord. I’ve heard it before.
My wife, my neighbor, the fishmonger say to me:
You have to hear him preach! But all I could think,
trudging over hill and sun-baked vale:
If this guy is Lord, someone forgot
to prepare his way. Continue reading “We walked for miles to see him”

The Lord is not a shepherd

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on April 26, 2015.

John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

I was determined that I was not going to stand up here and talk about sheep, but in thinking about today’s readings I kept being pulled back to the image of them—the shepherd, the flock, the pasture, the sheep. I have to admit I’m just not crazy about that image. It isn’t that I don’t like sheep. I do like sheep. I’ve toyed with the idea of having sheep some day. They’re relatively easy to manage, and they’re good for multiple purposes throughout their life cycles: they give wool, they give meat, some breeds even give milk. They can live off of relatively poor land. They can be integrated fairly easily into a multi-purpose farm and a household economy. And lambing season, if you don’t mind being kept up at night, is a glorious thing. Wendell Berry, one of a dwindling number of literal “good shepherds” the western world has left in this age of industrialized agriculture who also gives us his own eloquent descriptions of the experience, has this to say about keeping sheep:

The old shepherd comes to another
lambing time, and he gives thanks.
He has longed ever more strongly
as the weeks and months went by
for the new lives the ewes have carried
in their bellies through the winter cold.
Now in the gray mornings of barely
spring he goes to see at last
what the night has revealed. 1

Berry is a Christian, which I think shows through pretty clearly in his poetry—not that he is actively trying to convert anyone, but that he never strays very far from the image of rebirth. The care he takes for his sheep is the sort of care we’d want from our own Good Shepherd, but Berry’s is a very human shepherd—a humble one, who “gives thanks” for a lambing time that he, far from controlling in the manner of an industrial foreman or a software engineer, takes as a holy mystery. Continue reading “The Lord is not a shepherd”

  1. Wendell Berry, “VI” (2011), This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013), p.365.

Listening with the ears of God

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on October 5, 2014.

Matthew 21:33–46

One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.

Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!

And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.

It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.

You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me? Continue reading “Listening with the ears of God”