SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
PRAYER: The Practice of Encountering Others click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
PRAYER: The Practice of Encountering Others
Loving More Widely
Last week we began talking about Zacchaeus, and the changes that he underwent as a result of his meeting with Jesus, and especially the internal changes. Jesus met Zacchaeus at a deeper place, where he had to reassess his life: what was going to matter to him, how he was going to live, and who he was going to become. This meeting took him to that place in life where we are moved to say to Jesus, “Lord.”
And once Zacchaeus said that, change began to happen in his life, and his eyes were opened. In a way that he had not done before, Zacchaeus acknowledged his role in the community and his responsibilities. He also acknowledged how he had misused his role as tax collector, and how he had neglected his responsibilities to give back to the larger community. To his credit Zacchaeus repented of his past that day, and he promised to make amends going forward.
Through his meeting with Jesus he came to realize that life was not just about him, much less just about his money. Jesus helped him to experience what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the practice of encountering others. In her book An Altar in the World she writes that “the great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed,” and that the practice of encountering others can, “spring us from the prison of ourselves, if we allow it.”
Jesus sprung Zacchaeus that day, freed him from his self-absorption, which allowed him to see others in a new way. For the first time in who knows how long Zacchaeus saw others as more than just a means to enrich himself. They were people too, with their own lives apart from his. It can be a sobering practice for us to think of all the ways that we use one another in the course of a day, giving little thought to the life behind the person who is bagging our groceries, repairing our car, teaching our class, serving our meal, drawing our blood, delivering our mail, patrolling our streets . . . Taylor notes that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love our neighbor as our self, to encounter others as persons and not just as people who can serve our needs in some way.
Our stewardship theme Living More Deeply, Loving More Widely is meant to capture this movement of going deeper first, to the places where we experience the grace of God, and make our commitment to be a follower of Christ. And then as we do that, our attention gets focused outward, widening our sense of community, and our understanding of who Jesus means by neighbor when he commands us to love our neighbor as our self.
The fact is that we are drawing these circles of love all the time in life, sometimes wider, sometimes narrower. And there are good reasons sometimes for us to narrow the circle, and real limits to how many people we can include in our circle of neighbors. In our first adult study class this fall someone shared that we are hardwired to be tribal, and that is true. We instinctively feel deeper loyalty to our own family, school, church, community, sports team, state, nation . . . But Jesus keeps calling us to widen the circle, to open it up to others, and it can be a transformative experience and a powerful witness to the gospel when we see the circle get widened in new and unexpected ways.
So churches can be very tribal at times, and that is why we need to be intentional about widening the circle, being genuinely welcoming of new people when they come to worship with us or to share in our community meal. It is why we support Valley Outreach and Hope for the Journey Home and Emma Norton Services and Heifer Project. It is why we set up two new Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood and extended an invitation to our neighbors to come to a neighborhood picnic earlier this fall. It is why we do a special outreach project at Christmas time each year. It is why we are exploring some new initiatives with the Lily Lake Elementary School. (Speaking of that, I am looking for a few of us to join me in helping with a science fair in a few weeks. If you could give a couple hours to that, speak with me.)
So we are tribal by nature, but that does not mean we cannot widen our circles to include others. When Zacchaeus met Jesus, it changed him inside and out. A circle that for most of his life had included only himself was suddenly widened to include a much larger community. And this is what Jesus had to say about this change that had come over Zacchaeus? “Today salvation has come to this house!”
Zacchaeus was saved that day. Salvation is more than just an assurance about the next life, though it is that. It is also a part of our experience of grace in this life, when we are sprung from the prison of ourselves, as Taylor put it, when we are moved from a self-centered to an other-centered and finally to a Christ-centered life.
A famous philosopher once wrote, “Hell is other people.” And I suppose that there is some truth to that. Or at least we may feel that way sometimes. But this practice of encountering others is based upon just the opposite belief, the belief that “Heaven is other people.”
The commandment to love God and neighbor and self can only be fulfilled when we make it an embodied virtue, when we love real people in real ways. There is no way to love God apart from loving others and no way to love others apart from loving ourselves and no way to love ourselves apart from loving God. This commandment to love is all of one piece, all interconnected, just as we are not persons all by ourselves but persons in community with others. “A person is a person because of other persons,” goes an old African saying. The truth is that we need each other, in more ways than we can know. For Zacchaeus his salvation depended upon it, upon his reconnecting with others, and taking his rightful and responsible place within the larger community of which he was a part.
This week we should receive a letter from Donna and I, echoing Ray’s letter from last week, asking all of us to prayerfully consider our giving to the church this coming year. Last week in worship I encouraged us to set up a table meeting with Jesus in our prayers, letting him in on the conversation as we think about how much we have been blessed by God, about what it means to us to be a part of this congregation, about how much the life and ministry of our church is dependent upon every one of us, and about what a faithful gift would be for us.
And as Taylor suggests I would also encourage us to think about our connection to this community, and about our role and responsibilities. As a congregation, we are all dependent upon one another because we need each other to become who we are being called to be as the church. When some of us are not here, or when we do not serve as we are able, or give as we can, we are diminished as a congregation. As a congregation we all need to be a part and we all need to do our part.
There were once 2 brothers who worked together on the family farm. One was married and had a large family. The other was single. And at day’s end, they shared everything equally, produce and profit.
Now some time passed, and then one day the single brother said to himself, “It’s not right that we should share equally the produce and the profit. I’m alone and my needs are simple, and my brother has all those family responsibilities.” So each night he went out and filled a sack of grain from his bin and quietly made his way across the field between their houses, dumping the grain into his brother’s bin.
Meanwhile, the married brother said to himself, “It’s not right that we should share the produce and the profit equally. After all, I’m married and I have my wife and my children to look after me for years to come. But my brother is all alone, and he has no one to look after his future.” So each night he went out and filled a sack of grain from his bin and quietly made his way across the field between their houses, dumping the grain into his brother’s bin.
And both of them were bewildered by this for a long time because their supplies of grain never seemed to dwindle. They even got to wondering whether it was a miracle, and in way I suppose it was. But then one night the 2 brothers went out as usual, but this time they bumped into each other on their way to the other’s bin. And there in the darkness it dawned on each of them what had been happening. And they both dropped their sacks of grain and embraced one another.
This is as good a story as I can find to illustrate what it means to be a faithful member of the church. It has got to be two-way, giving and receiving, and receiving and giving. It cannot just be one way, just taking when we need something from the church. What if one of the brothers had done that? One of the bins would have been quickly emptied. No, like the two brothers we need to give thought to our blessings, and to the fullness of our bins. And from whatever blessings we have been given by God, we need to give with gratitude and generosity, and in turn we will be blessed as well, like the two brothers.
Last week we heard these words from the Letter of Peter, “Let us be good stewards of the grace of God, serving one another with whatever gifts each of us has received.” If we will all do this, as best we can, by the grace of God, if we will all live deeply, love widely, and give generously, our bins will be full indeed.
Let us pray . . .
Take us deeper, Lord, to that place in our hearts where our intentions and motives and loyalties and commitments reside. It can be a confusing place sometimes, even an anxious place. Meet us there. Shine your light in the darkness, and by your grace ease our fears, that we may be moved say to you once again, “Lord.”
Lord, make us mindful of all our blessings, of the fullness of our bins, the bins of family and friends, of health and well-being, of school and work, of food and shelter, of hopes and possibilities. Make us mindful and thankful.
Lord, help us to see our roles and responsibilities in the communities of which we are apart, and especially this day in this community of faith. We thank you for all your faithful servants here, who give so much of themselves in so many ways in service to you and your kingdom coming. Help us all to be a part and to do our faithful part. Let salvation come to our church this day!