Reflection ~ Rev Dr Phil Wall
Politics, Protest and Peace Part 3:
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Last Thursday evening, Music City – also known as Nashville, Tennessee – hosted the second and final Presidential debate. Now, writing this sermon on Thursday as I usually do, I have no way of knowing the high and lowlights of the evening as I type but I am certainly intrigued about how it will go. Will the mute button make proceedings more civilized that the last attempt? Can Joe Biden avoid a slip-up? Which far right organization will Trump speak to this time? And, perhaps most importantly, which flying creature will steal all the headlines the following day? (Those who saw coverage of the Vice-Presidential debate will know that I’ve not completely lost it!).
One thing I do know about the evening without needing to watch it is that it will not be an amicable affair. This campaign season has been more bitter, divisive and depressing than perhaps any other in living memory and in a week that saw politicians in the Commons accuse some colleagues of viewing the coronavirus as a ‘good crisis which they could exploit’ and others calling their colleagues ‘scum’, we can’t pretend that we’re much more sophisticated over here. The acrimonious Brexit debate certainly revealed that.
So, where do we go from here? Well, in the third and final of our series on politics, protest and peace, I invite us to reflect on that very question and at Martin Luther King’s suggestion – made in his 1967 book which looked at this very question – that the American electorate, the people of Wales, that humanity worldwide can either choose community or chaos. This was just as true in first century Palestine as it is today and it’s to there that we now head as we hear a familiar tale of a tree-climber whose life is about to change…
Luke 19:1-10 read by Bethan Walkling
So, Jesus and the gang are passing through the city of Jericho in the Jordan valley, arousing the interest and excitement of the city’s inhabitants, one of whom, we’re told, is named Zacchaeus. At the very beginning of this vignette, we are given a concise description of the new player, being told that he is a man, a chief tax collector and is wealthy. Okay – big flag there. This description is the Biblical equivalent of describing him twiddling his moustache, steepling his fingers and ending his sentences with the phrase ‘mwah ha ha ha!’ This guy = baddie.
The chief tax collectors were the ones contracted by Roman officials to collect the taxes, tariffs and tolls from their fellow Jews. They were seen as self-serving betrayers of their own people and were generally hated by their neighbours. They were also assumed to be dishonest, often siphoning off money for themselves, and the fact that Zacchaeus was a wealthy one basically assures us of his corrupt and villainous character. So, Jesus is clearly going to give it to this guy, right? Or at least walk straight past him, focusing on the poor and vulnerable instead. I mean, this is the Nazarene rebel who warned against the evils of greed more than anything else. He’s the rebel-rouser that announced his entry into the public square with the claim that ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor’. The guy has literally just told a religiously observant young man to sell everything – everything – he has and give it to the poor and followed this up by saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!
If you didn’t already know what was to unfurl, you might actually feel sorry for wealthy old Zacchaeus, assuming that Jesus was about to sock it to him!
But just when we think we’ve got this Jesus pegged; just when we think we can work out how he’s going to act; what he’s going to say…he throws us yet another curveball;
“Zacchaeus,” says Jesus, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
What is Jesus playing at here? He’s barely set eyes on his guy – this corrupt collaborator of the Empire – and suddenly he’s inviting himself round for dinner! No wonder, as we’re told, that all who saw it began to grumble and observe, with incredulity, that ‘he’s gone to be the guest of a sinner!’. And maybe that verse – that description of the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus – is the key to understanding this whole passage.
You see, Zacchaeus’ neighbours, with much justification it must be said, had labelled him a sinner. Rabbis and respectable people shouldn’t be seen with such folk. Sinners don’t make for great dinner partners. They shouldn’t be indulged, listened to, loved…they should be ignored, excluded, ostracized for none of us want sinners in our midst, do we? Not in our back yard! And as we unpack the crowd’s way of thinking, we may soon find ourselves squirming uncomfortably. For we, too, can slip into grumbling about the sinner over there who we can point to and punish. We too can slip into language of the good and the evil; the sinner and the sinless. We too can seek to push ‘them’ further and further away with the pretense that this will keep ‘us’ safe from ‘their’ destructive ways; rejecting dialogue and reconciliation, refusing their very humanity and acting – sometimes tragically and literally – like the Red Queen who ‘had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small – ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking around’.
Jesus, on the other hand, joins the so-called sinner for dinner. And what, at first, might seem to be an act in contradiction with his ongoing challenge of the corrupt systems of Empire, actually fits into his life-long commitment to stand with the accused, the demonized, the unworthy. Though wealthy, Zacchaeus is still a victim of social exclusion. Though an Empire-collaborator, he is still ‘a son of Abraham’; still someone who is lost in his own greed; still someone that the Son of Man has come to love and liberate. And through Jesus’ treating Zacchaeus as if he has inherent worth as a human being, salvation breaks through, Zacchaeus’ life is turned around, and his community glimpse justice and generosity through his change of ways. All of this just from a simple dinner plan! In short, Jesus transformed a person and their community just by loving them. It’s as simple and as revolutionary as that.
The same thing happens today, of course. On Wednesday evening, at our second ‘Double Vision’ discussion evening, I referred to the example of Megan Phelps-Roper. Megan grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church – a fundamentalist right-wing church in America who are notorious for their protests at the funerals of American soldiers, holding placards with slogans such as ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’ and ‘God is Your Enemy’.
For years, then, Megan found it easy to point at the sinners over there; to name those whom we should shun and exclude which was, conveniently, anyone who didn’t belong to their church! Megan was in charge of the social media side of their hate-filled campaign and the more abuse she got online, the more she believed she was right – that the sinners of the world were persecuting the good, God-fearing Christians. So she continued judging others and even mocking the grieving, the dying and the dead – as she had been taught to do from a young age. Then, over the course of a few years, she started to have doubts about her actions;
“It started with conversations on twitter.” Megan says. “I was there to spread Westboro’s message…[but] sometimes [people] would ask me… ‘Everyone hates you that must be so hard’…They were clearly showing interest in my experience as a human being…[and] when people were treating me this way, I started to reflect that back to them too.”
In other words, when people accused, abused and tried to exclude Megan, she found it easy to do the same. When people met her hate with love; when others showed her empathy; when they listened to and loved her, she began to reflect that back to them – to see others as people worthy of dignity and love. Since then, Megan found the impetus and courage to leave her church – and also, therefore, many of her family members – and today she travels the world sharing an outlook of hope and not hate; advocating dialogue between groups with conflicting views. Groups, perhaps, like civilly disobedient Communists and literalist Christians – representatives of whom shared their conflicting views at Wednesday’s discussion evening and who yet – when talking with each other off-screen – could still find commonality in their shared heritage, passion for justice and love of neighbour!
So, what does all this mean, we might well ask. How might we get to the ‘peace’ bit of our sermon series? How can the Divided States of America or a still Brexit ravaged Britain choose community over chaos? Well, I’m not foolish enough to give us a four-point plan! No, here’s a three-point one instead!
Firstly, let’s think about how we see people. We need to stop looking for, and pointing at, the sinners ‘over there’. Such a way of viewing humanity– hampered by those planks in our eyes as it is – might enable us to feel safe, superior and in control of things because we know who the problem is and can keep our focus on changing them, correcting them, expelling them but the peace that comes with this is, as Franciscan priest Richard Rohr puts it, ‘is the peace of avoidance, denial and projection’.
Zacchaeus and the crowd are one. We are all villain and victim; the fallen and the fabulous; children of God who are capable of immense kindness and devastating hurt. Like the small man from Jericho, we all collaborate with systems of oppression; we can all put personal comfort over shared justice whether knowingly or unwittingly. Yes, we should strive against this. Yes, we might protest and petition and pray for a fairer, more compassionate world but we must do so knowing that we can be part of the problem as well as the solution. We should do so knowing that neither our sin nor our salvation can ever be exclusively mine but are collectively ours. We should do so knowing that in the foundational act of scared solidarity, God in Christ took on our flesh, our obsession with finger-pointing, our very sin; that Jesus died asking forgiveness for those who knew not what they did; and that he rose from the grave offering us liberation, a renewed understanding of God and hope for a better world. Let us therefore strive to see others within such a horizon, in which no-one – not tax-collectors, not Westboro church members, not even prejudiced Presidents – are beyond God’s love and redemption.
Which brings us to point two. We need to speak and act with grace. As much as we might secretly want it, those with whom we disagree, those who believe or vote or live differently to us, they’re not going away. No human is an island…and no island can be completely cut off for that matter. All of humanity – all of God’s creation even – is woven together in our messiness and magnificence. What might it be like to make peace with that and to seek to get to know, listen to and love ‘them over there’? What might it be like to remember that we shouldn’t be casting stones but planning dinner parties? What might it look like to actively seek out encounters with fellow children of God whom we might otherwise bypass – to practice deep listening; to ask open, non-judgmental questions; to deepen our understanding of the other person’s needs, interests and God-given gifts?
So…solidarity in our seeing; grace in our acting; and love in our gathering. In his excellent book on Benedictine monasteries, Rowan Williams suggests that all Christian communities should embody a way of life that could offer healing and hope to a divided world; that could model community over chaos. In his analysis of the rule of St Benedict, he speaks of Church being ‘bound up with a habitual acceptance of the otherness of others’ and asks ‘what does it feel like to imagine holiness as an unselfconscious getting used to others?. I love that question. Rowan convincingly argues that it is in community that our foibles and frustrations are exposed; in community that we can learn to understand, accept, forgive and truly love the other; in community that we too can be understood, accepted, forgiven and truly loved by the other;
‘The height of self-denial’, he says, ‘the extreme of asceticism, is not hair-shirts and all-night vigils; its standing next to the same person quietly for years on end’
Those married amongst us might heartily agree! But whatever our marital status, we are all called, welcomed and loved into a kingdom community where forgiveness can overcome frustration; where no one is labelled ‘sinner’ or ‘saint’ for we know that we’re all a mixture of both; where we are forever known, not by the worst thing we have ever done, but as children of the God who made, loves and lives in us all.
So, in the aftermath of elections; in the midst of protests and pandemics; in our everyday living may we choose community over chaos. May we choose solidarity over division; reconciliation over grudge-keeping; hope over despair. Together, may we choose to follow in the footsteps of the God-man who makes dinner invitations divine revelations. Amen.
 https://cac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CP-3_Zealots-and-Pharisees.pdf. Readers of this article will see that I have borrowed and endorsed much of the thinking of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in this reflection. For those interested in reading more, I highly recommend their daily meditations, for which you can sign up at https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/
 Rowan Williams, The Way of St Benedict (Bloomsbury, London, 2020), p13
 Rowan Williams, The Way of St Benedict (Bloomsbury, London, 2020), p27
A Prayer for Perpetrators read by Viviane
God over Golgotha, the place where Jesus died, when senseless acts of violence occur, we admit that praying for those who seek to harm, who aim to kill others, who take away the gift of life that you give is incredibly difficult.
It goes against everything that we think and feel and want in the moment.
But we remember that Jesus, in the place of Golgotha, even on the cross, spent one of his precious dying breaths speaking words of loving-kindness over those who crucified him.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing “.
So Jesus lived and died, staying true to what he asks of others;
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
For those who harm others and who seek to do harm in this world, we pray, O God.
We remember them and all who love them.
We remember that their lives too are devastated and their hopes dashed.
We know that the pain from each act of violence, like the ripples of a stone cast in a pond, travel in many different directions.
Those who perpetrate violence become casualties of their own anger, their own hatred, their own bitterness, their own deep woundedness. They too are in need of your grace, your love, and your healing light.
They know not what they do.
Help them see what they do.
Help them recognise the ripples of suffering and pain that have been caused by the stones they threw, by the guns they shot, by their own actions.
Not only do they not know what they do, but also they do not know what they need.
So we pray with Jesus, “ Father, forgive them”.
May that forgiveness begin to disarm their anger and hatred, dismantle their bitterness, and demolish their desire to harm. May that forgiveness be a healing balm that begins to mend and transform the broken places and pain in their own lives. Holy Spirit, who filled Jesus even on the cross at Golgotha, keep us from casting our own stones of anger, hatred, bitterness, and retaliation.
The darkness cannot compare to the power of the light.
May we be your light.
May we be catchers of stones and not casters of stones.
May we learn to love and forgive the way that you have and do.
May our work of justice include loving our enemies and praying for those who would persecute or harm us.
May our presence bring healing to this world, in the name of Jesus the Christ.
May it be so. Amen.
Excerpts taken from ‘Rally’. Compiled and edited by Britney Winn Lee.©2020. Fresh Air Books
Hymn: Make me a channel of your peace
Go forth into a world divided. Yet know that God dwells even there, in all places, in this time. And also know that there is no real division for everything is in God and God is with all. We are one in God’s oneness. Be aware of that sacred presence. Let it strengthen you. Let it transform you. Build shalom. Love with abandon. Abide in peace. Amen
(Diana Butler Bass written after 2016 US elections)