Sunday, 4 November 2007

4th Before Advent 2007

4 before Advent (2007) RCL Year A Principal

Out on a Limb…(pun intended)

Zaccheus is a very attractive figure from scripture, or rather the quaint story that we associate with him being a little man who shins up a tree to see Jesus is attractive to us. From the Sunday school song ‘Zaccheus was a very little man’ which I remember from ‘days of yore’ (whatever that means) to the wonderful transformation that sees him giving back what he took from others and following Jesus.

But I doubt he was a very attractive figure to those who knew him. We all know, I’m sure, that tax collectors like Zaccheus became rich by adding to the burden of tax demanded by the Roman authorities. Not only were they collaborators with an occupying power, but they were – more often than not – dishonest and greedy. They were not popular – so much so that one of the greatest insults hurled against Jesus was that he ‘ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners’.

Yet Jesus called him, invited himself to eat at Zaccheus house and changed his life. And in order for this to happen Zaccheus made the first move. He literally went out on a limb to see Jesus, and Jesus responded to that longing and met him where he was, giving Zaccheus a new purpose, a dignity and showing compassion and the grace of God to him.

There’s a lot of risk in this story, Zaccheus had to climb a tree, maybe not a big tree, but he exposed himself to public ridicule, particularly as he was probably not the most likely to receive a ‘mr popularity’ award in Jericho.

Then there’s the risk that Jesus takes by reaching out to this man. It’s easy to think that Jesus knew how Zaccheus would react, that this tax collector was open to Jesus’ message – but if Jesus was anything like us, and my reading of scripture is that he was very much like us – then reaching out to another person means that we set ourselves up for the very real possibility of rejection. For all Jesus might have know, Zaccheus could have been up that tree for the novelty value of seeing this miracle worker. He might not have been willing to deal with a genuine encounter with Jesus at all, but could have disappeared off into the crowd never to be seen again. It’s all very for us with hindsight and a Sunday school familiarity with this story to see the happy ending, but there is every chance it may not have ended up this way, Jesus wasn’t to know. After all, we only have to turn to the end of our Gospels to see how some reacted to him, with mocking, torture and crucifixion.

So there was a certain risk on both sides in this oh so familiar story.

Just as there is a risk every time we share the life and the love of Christ with those around us.

When I look around our congregations I see a huge amount to good work being done by Christians in our villages, a group of Christians who are overwhelmingly compassionate, thoughtful and caring. I can honestly say that in my life as a Christian I have never seen such a pastorally minded group of people, people concerned to put the love of God into action.

Yet there is often a reluctance to make it clear that we do what we do because of the Gospel of Christ. We don’t always name Jesus or even let others know that we are Christians. Now there are times that we do what we do just because that is how God has made us, and that it reflects the love of Christ that dwells in us. We aren’t looking for credit, nor to do a good PR job for the Church.

But we are, as Christians, called to live the Gospel in a way that it is proclaimed in word and deed. To take the risk of naming Jesus, and sharing Christ with our neighbours and friends.

But it’s a risky business, and I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty, or pressured, or resentful. It’s not just an issue for us as individual Christians – and I include myself in this, because despite the collar it is sometimes hard to speak out about faith for fear of turning people away! The issue of taking risks is something that the Church at large is having to tackle in terms of our calling to share in God’s Mission to the world.

In the past couple of years the phrase ‘fresh expressions’ has come into currency in the Church of England. In the US they have a somewhat more dynamic description of the same kind of movement ‘the emergent Church’. The groups which come under this banner are seeking to advance the Gospel in our post-Christian culture, by asking questions about our Church conventions and tradition, but seeking the core of Christian faith, and being willing to try new ways to express their worship, their faith and their commitment to the Gospel.

It is risky, and Churches meeting in pubs and schools, outside of the usual service times and with differing formats can cause those of us in more ‘conventional’ congregations a certain amount of discomfort. But it is part of being willing to proclaim the Gospel in ways which reach out to a very different world to the one which our traditional styles do. And many who would not respond to the usual ways we have of being Church are exploring faith through these new congregations.

And we come again to the need for all of us to be willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. To reach out as Jesus did to Zaccheus and to be a part of the lives of those outside our walls, rather than apart from them. In the first chapter of the second letter to the Thessalonians that was our second reading for today we are given reassurance of God’s presence with us even in suffering, and a prayer that we will be, as it says in verse 11 ‘worthy of God’s call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith,’

Following Christ and sharing his Good News is a risky business – but then we must recognise that those who are seeking Christ are taking risks too, just like Zaccheus they are often out on a limb, detached from the culture that makes up their lives and hearing things which are disturbing and have the potential to turn their lives upside-down. We must respect the risk that others take in their own journeys of faith even as we ask God for the grace to take rishs ourselves – in our own personal walk with Christ and in the lives of our Churches. as St Paul says in verse 12 of 2 Timothy Chapter 1 ‘So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ’