Proper 26 C: A Sense of Abundance & a Garden of Gratitude

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Texts for Preaching

“Isn’t the Creation Wasteful?”
by Helder Camara

isn’t your creation wasteful?
Fruits never equal
the seedlings’ abundance.
Springs scatter water.
The sun gives out
enormous light.
May your bounty teach me
greatness of heart.
May your magnificence
stop me being mean.
Seeing you a prodigal
and open-handed giver
let me give unstintingly
like a king’s child
like God’s own.

Gospel: Luke 19:1-10


We wouldn’t know it
from the way it gets told in the churches
but the Gospel is a manifesto of class warfare.
The Gospels, especially Luke,
are full of stories about God’s activity
among ordinary human beings
told from the bottom of society up,
not down from thrones or the head of the dinner table.
UNLIKE our own political discourse
and public myth making,
the Gospels and the rest of the Bible,
are full of self-critique
and honest confessions of wrong done with malice.

Odd little Zacchaeus is an example.
We get fixated on the fact that Zacchaeus
was short and climbed a tree,
but the action hovers around his social standing
not his height when he is standing up.
The folks telling this story hated Zacchaeus.

He was a collaborator.
Zacchaeus was like one of those Vichy French
that collaborated with the Nazis
and got fat doing it.
Or closer to home,
a greasy executive of a credit card company
getting rich off of obscene usury
from people that can’t really afford it.
You get the picture; he was hated.

When Luke tells us Zacchaeus was a tax collector,
he doesn’t mean someone that works for the IRS.
A tax collector in the Roman system of occupation
was a local that squeezed his neighbors
like a loan-shark break knuckles.

Tax collectors went around exacting whatever the Roman’s charged at the time,
but were also allowed to charge excess
to pay themselves and their cronies.
It was a despicable act of self-enrichment
at the expense of neighbors.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus
was the “chief” tax collector.
He was the guy
over all the other guys that everyone hated.
He was therefore the most hated guy.
Then, just to make sure we get it,
Luke says, “and he was rich.”

Do you hear the class warfare now?

This story does not come from patricians in Rome
or the small niche of well-off Judeans,
it was a story told by hard scrapple peasants
who hated anyone rich
and especially those who got rich from Rome
at their expense.

But the storyteller understands
such hatred is not pretty.
In fact, that class hatred also becomes a target
in the story.
To everyone’s dismay,
the hero of the story, Jesus,
picks Zacchaeus to hang out with.

But there is even more here to read between the lines,
and to see underneath the obvious.

To eat at the table of a tax collector
was not just socially obnoxious
and a clear betrayal of class solidarity,
it was spiritually impure.
Tax collectors mixed with pig-eaters, heathen,
and made themselves religiously impure doing so.
They had to interact with gentiles
and exchange money with them,
and enter into their homes and establishments.
Tax collectors were therefore filthy and dirty
and not to be socialized with
by those who cared anything about their standing
with the temple or with peers.

By going to hang out with Zacchaeus,
and actually eating a meal at his table,
Jesus was violating social, spiritual, and religious taboos
more powerful than any social norms we have today.

We can hear the outrage and dismay
in the tone of the story
even two thousand years later,
translated into an alien language,
and filtered through multiple historic cultures.
“Jesus, what are you doing with Zacchaeus?”

Then the storyteller does something interesting.
He or she does not tell us what happened
but simply shows us what happened.
Zacchaeus changed.
We do not get to know anything other than that:
Zacchaeus changed.

He gave back what he extorted from people,
and gave away half of what he had
to those who had nothing.

That is all we know.
Jesus ate with him and he changed.

We don’t even get to know
if that changed how people viewed Zacchaeus
or if they went on hating him.
We don’t know if he stopped being a tax collector.
All we know is that Jesus ate with him
and at least on that one day,
Zacchaeus changed from despicable to generous.

Seeing you a prodigal (Oh God)
and open-handed giver
let me give unstintingly.

Man, is that difficult –
the Camara poem is likewise haunting in its challenge.

Obviously it is more difficult for some
than for others,
but for everyone
there are times when giving our stuff away
is like trying to slide a heavy couch over carpet.

In other words,
lots of grunting and groaning
just to pry a little bit out of us.

But the universe is not a zero-sum game.
We often act like it is;
we act like anyone who gets something
gains it at our expense,
as if we live in a world of scarcity
that is necessarily a dog-eat-dog environment.
That is the way we act,
and it is the way we have set the stage
for the life we live,
but that is NOT the way of the Creation.

In the world God made
there is abundance
and the problem is not scarcity
but distribution.
We muck up the abundance
by hoarding and over-accumulation,
and the refusal to distribute much of anything equitably.

But my saying that won’t convince you of abundance
if what you see is scarcity,
and what you fear is loss,
and what you want is absolute security.
Nevertheless, examples of Creation’s abundance
drip from every medicated leaf of the rain forest,
and well up in the sands of every desert
within which minions of miraculous creatures
live and work and play
in that oven-baked crust of the earth.

We cannot turn our head
or look beyond our nose
without witnessing abundance
where we assumed scarcity –
unless of course,
we simply do not want to see it.

Something about God, and the agents of God,
causes us to change and see it.
I think it has to do with what we see
when we encounter God,
that we may not have seen before.

For some people,
after some moments of holy shock and awe,
it is a lifetime change,
while for others it is a momentary change.
But there is something about the presence of God
or being in the presence of an agent of God,
that changes us.

We suddenly get more generous than ever before.
We suddenly get less scared and more open.
We suddenly see the ill effects of our own behavior
in ways we never quite recognized before.
We suddenly want to be different
and make up for what we’ve done.
We suddenly listen to the angels of our better nature
and live out beyond our self-interest.
We suddenly,
when standing in the presence of God
or an agent of God,
want and need
to be different than we have been.

We could speculate all day long
and far into the night,
why God has that effect on us
but there is really no point.

Rather, we can simply recognize that such change
is part of the physics of God
and do what we can to position ourselves
to be open to God’s presence when it comes.
We can scurry up a tree and wait
or stand by the road and wait
or enter into a yoga position and wait
or come to a place like this and wait.

There is nothing we can DO
to make God or the agents of God come our way,
but we can prepare ourselves to be open
when it happens.

We can DO the things we need to do
to open ourselves to the actual and ordinary presence
of God in our midst, and so prepare ourselves
to accept the change that happens
when we encounter God.
We cannot make God present
but we can prepare ourselves to be open
to God’s presence when it comes.

While there a million ways
to prepare ourselves to be open,
I am going to name just two today,
in reference to Luke and Camara: Abundance and gratitude.

We know fear is a powerful emotion
and it is probably the primary cause of blindness
when it comes to perceiving abundance.

isn’t your creation wasteful?
Fruits never equal
the seedlings’ abundance.
Springs scatter water.
The sun gives out
enormous light.
May your bounty teach me
greatness of heart.
May your magnificence
stop me being mean.

We can train ourselves to see abundance
instead of fearing scarcity.
It is a practice like anything else.
When our frame of reference is NOT self-interest
it is much easier to see abundance.

When our self-interest
is merely one of our vantage points
instead of our only or primary lens
then we begin to see things all around us
that we never saw before.
That is what we need to do
to see abundance where previously
we feared scarcity.
It is darn near miraculous how it works.
You probably know that already.

Extracting our self-interest from the picture
suddenly reveals abundance in the background.

The other thing is gratitude.
It is incredibly difficult
to feel both gratitude and fear
at the same time.
It’s actually kind of weird,
like patting your head and rubbing your tummy:
it can be done, but it is not easy.

Gratitude for what we have,
or have had,
or have seen and done and known,
is an experience that is at one and the same time
past tense,
present tense,
and future tense.
It is a vibe
that resonates from wherever we are standing
and moves outward
to encircle where we have been.

Gratitude is down right spooky in its power
because it can start as something small
and grow to encase the moment before we even know it.
And that is all the room gratitude needs
in order to grow and expand –
just a tiny little note or peapod
within the heart.

So the practice of standing in vantage points
that have little or nothing to do
with our own self-interest
will give us the vision we need
to perceive abundance
where previously we feared scarcity.

And even a pinpoint of gratitude
within the arid land of resentment within our hearts
will sprawl into a vine that takes over
and changes us from the inside out.
Whether we are Zacchaeus
or those who hate Zacchaeus,
a sense of abundance
and a garden of gratitude
will open us to encounter God
or the agents of God
when they are present.
And when that happens
we change.