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Overcoming Obstacles

By Rev. Julie Yarborough

November 4, 2007

Luke 19: 1-10 and Jeremiah 29: 11-14

[ Audio (mp3, 6.5Mb) ]

 I were casting a movie about Zacchaeus, I would want Danny DeVito to play the lead role. Can you see it? Zacchaeus – let’s call him Zach – is a short man, but rich and powerful - one that is used to getting his own way, regardless of the cost. You know the type - he’s not used to hearing “no” for an answer, and will always find a way to get what he needs or wants, even if he has to take it by force. In fact, that’s how he makes his living: by cheating others out of their money. He’s a Jewish man who collects taxes from his own people for the Roman occupation force, and that in and of itself makes him unpopular, but he skims off the top, charging a little extra so that he can grease his own pockets before paying the Romans. He’s resourceful, persistent, and shall we say, not very popular among his peers.

On this particular day, our man Zach is determined (one version of scripture says “desperate”) to see this man Jesus, whom he’s heard a lot about. He can’t see over the crowd, so he does the first thing he thinks of: he climbs a tree and perches on a branch to get a better look at this teacher, whose reputation has preceded him. Zach is delighted with the view – he can see even better than he imagined. He can hardly believe his luck. And then, the man whom he has never met before but has come to see, stops under the very tree that he is in. This man, Jesus, motions for Zach to come down, and says “I’m coming to your house for lunch!” And in that moment, Zach is a changed man. All of a sudden, in the presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus wants to make amends for all that he has done wrong. He wants to repay all those whom he has cheated. He wants to be a better man.

The story about this short, disreputable man has something to teach us. Actually, it has more than one thing to teach us, but there’s one thing that jumps out at me as I read this story again: When we overcome the obstacles that keep us from getting close to Jesus, our lives are changed. (And let me be clear - in this case, I’m talking about Jesus as the embodiment of God, the presence of the Holy in human form.)

There are many obstacles that get in the way of our forming an intimate relationship with the Holy. Some of us have old tapes that we’re hearing – tapes that say that we are unworthy or impossible to love. Some of us have been wounded by prior religious experiences that have been abusive or destructive. Some of us are too cool and too self-reliant – too used to going it alone to need help from any other source. Some of us lead lives that are so full and busy, we don’t have time for God. And, dare I say it, for some of us, the love of money and material items keeps us from forming a closer relationship with the Spirit.

For Anne Lamott, addictions and self-loathing were the obstacles. Lamott tells her story in her bestselling book, Traveling Mercies. An addict and alcoholic, and having affairs with one married man after another, she did not believe that God could possibly love her. Still, she wandered into a church one Sunday morning, lured by the beautiful music she heard coming through the windows. Moved by that music, she would go every once in a while on a Sunday morning, but would never stay for the sermon. Drinking heavily, Lamott hit bottom when she discovered that she was pregnant and went for an abortion. She went back to her houseboat, where she drank and got high for a week, until she noticed some very heavy bleeding. Too scared and ashamed to get help, Lamott lit a cigarette, turned of the light and got in bed.

“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in a corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure that no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond a doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant, hilarious, progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him sitting there on his hunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.[1]

She finally went to sleep and in the morning when she woke up, he was gone. She thought that would be the end of it, but she kept having the feeling that someone or something was following her, like a little cat, “…wanting me to open the door and let it in.”

A week later she went to church and sitting in the pew, listening to the music, she had the overwhelming feeling wash over her that she was being held. She began to cry. She left the service early and ran home, and there, standing in the doorway of her houseboat, she hung her head and said, “All right, you can come in.”

Anne Lamott’s conversion experience didn’t change her life overnight. It was another two years before she got sober and a year after that before she decided to get baptized. But slowly, as she opened up to the presence of the Spirit in her life, she began the journey toward wholeness.

Our stories may not be so dramatic, but many of us still have obstacles that keep us from getting close to the presence of God. And we may share the same belief that God can’t possibly love us, because we have done things for which we feel great shame and guilt. Yet as a favorite quote of mine says, “God knows us through and through and loves us still and all.”[2]

Robert Fulghum tells a story about watching a group of kids playing hide-and-seek outside his window one day. As the game progressed, one kid hid so well that his friends gave up and went on to play something else. Fulghum couldn’t stand it – he got up, raised the window and yelled, “Get found, kid!”

Sometimes I think that God is like that, watching and waiting and yelling to us, “Get found kid!”

The promise of God to us, in the passage of Jeremiah that Bob read to us this morning, is that God has our best interests at heart, and when we call upon God and seek with all our hearts, we will find God. As Howard Thurman has written,

These are not idle words of the prophet: ‘If with all your heart you

truly seek me, you shall surely find me.’ To the persistent knock at

the door there is an answer. We live in a universe that is responsive

to an ultimate urgency. The secret is to be able to want one thing, to

seek one thing, to organize the resources of one’s life around a single

end; and slowly, surely, the life becomes one with that end.[3]

God is waiting to be found, and yet, God does not force herself upon us. Like a loving mother, or a patient father, God is waiting until we approach - waiting for us to say, ‘come on in’ – waiting for us to open the door and make space available in our hearts. To illustrate this point, there are several famous paintings of Jesus standing in a garden, knocking on a wooden door. Upon closer look, the viewer realizes that there is no handle on the door on Jesus’ side. The door handle is only on the other side of the door – Jesus (the human face of God) cannot enter unless the door is opened for him.

What obstacles keep you from getting closer to God? What puts distance between you and a loving presence that welcomes you in? One obstacle that I think many of us share is our reluctance to encounter the Jesus of the Gospels because of our very ability to think critically. In this case, I think our intellectual blessing can be a curse.

Marcus Borg suggests that, “… we need to develop the ability to hear the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) in a state of postcritical naiveté. It is a state beyond the childhood stage of precritical naiveté and the adolescent and adult stage of critical thinking.”[4] To illustrate these three stages of understanding, Borg suggests that we take any Bible story with a fantastic event, such as the creation story, Noah and the flood, the parting of the red sea, or Jesus walking on water. When we were young children, if we heard these stories, we believed them to be literally true. We believed that they happened exactly as they were written. It didn’t occur to us to ask, “Did Noah really build a big boat and load it with two of every animal? Did God really flood the entire earth? Or is this story a metaphorical narrative?” We just accepted the story as truth.

As we grew older, and entered into the stage of critical thinking, we began to question what we were taught and what we read. If we grew up with the Bible, we begin to wonder if things in the Bible really happened the way that they were written. We may have even become convinced that they didn’t happen at all and we were no longer able to hear these stories as true. Some people stop reading the Bible all together and stop going to church at this point, thinking, if what I’ve been taught didn’t really happen, then how can I believe any of it anymore? This stage of critical thinking is complicated by confusion in our society over the difference between factuality and truth: the idea that if something didn’t happen it can’t be true, and is therefore unbelievable. Many people get stuck in this stage of understanding and never progress to the next level: that of postcritical naiveté, in which one knows that the stories are not factually accurate, but realizes that the truth, and therefore faith, does not depend upon historical factuality. As Borg explains, “It is the ability to hear the …stories once again as we did when we were children, even as we know that they are almost certainly not historical narratives.”

Reading through the lens of post-critical naiveté, (called second naiveté by Paul Ricouer, and second innocence by William Blake) allows us to read the Gospels in a new way, enabling us to claim what is true for our lives without worrying about what actually happened. In this manner, Jesus can become accessible to our lives in a whole new transformative way. Borg describes Jesus as a “thin place,” one in which the boundary between this world and the spiritual world becomes permeable: “Jesus was a ‘thin place,’ as are the stories and practices of the tradition that remembers and celebrates him. Through these ways and more, the Living Christ comes to us and transforms our lives, even today.”[5]

It is clear that encounters with God change our lives. When Zacchaeus encountered the living God through the person of Jesus, he changed on the spot. Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to change – he just invited himself to lunch at Zach’s house. But Jesus did recognize the authentic change that took place in the short man standing before him. “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” Here he is! He’s no longer lost! Today is salvation day, for Zacchaeus is restored to himself. The kid who was lost got himself found.

This love that calls out to us to get found is so strong that it invites us to change our lives, to live to our higher selves, to be better people. What are we waiting for?

[1] Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, (New York: Random House,) 1999, pp. 49-50.

[2] Quote that I carried around for a long time, but I can’t remember the person who wrote it. (Meister Eckhart?)

[3] Disciplines of the Spirit, by Howard Thurman, --------------- p. 26.

[4] The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, (New York: HarperCollins), 1999, p. 247.

[5] Ibid, p. 250.


© 2007 Julie Yarborough. All rights reserved.