Hanging on For Dear Life

A reflection on Luke 19:1-10 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie originally preached at St. Brigids Vancouver on October 30, 2016.

On Wednesday I found myself
Sitting at a table
Soup in front of me
Spoon in hand
Listening.

I found myself for the first time
Sitting around a table
I’ve known about for years
Have talked about for months
But never bothered to visit.
Too busy.
Too much going on.

I’ve prayed near that table before.
Prayed with the people who serve there
Prayed for them too.
Prayed for the people who eat there.
But I’d never bothered to stay.

And yet on Wednesday
I pulled up a chair at the community table
Next to my friend Karen
Across from two guys I’d never met.

I asked if we could join them
One of them,
Seemingly the older of the two
Nodded.
The other muttered something
Indistinguishable.
We sat down.

The conversation meandered
Sometimes I found myself in it
Sometimes nowhere near:
I did not always understand.

But my ears perked up
when the conversation turned
to the poor
and what a rough time they’re having
and what should be done to help them
Here in Canada; and
In places like Haiti

A place – it turns out –
the older gentleman had visited in the 70s
“Poor as shit.” He said with a knowing glance
“Total squalor.”
“Education is the pits there,”
“Or at least it was.”
“That was a long time ago.“
“We were there to build a church”
“It was me and my aunt.”
“Baptist.”
“Yeah, it was a Baptist church.”

“My own mother is headed to Haiti next month,”
I offered.
And then we were interrupted.
The conversation seemingly derailed.
It had been my first real offering to the conversation
Up until then I had mostly been listening.
But someone else had come over
To bend our ear
To have a say
To leave us with another zinging one-liner
Laced with misogyny
Delivered with a world-weary smile

“What were you saying?”
Startled, I repeated what I’d begun to say
That my mom’s headed to Haiti next month
And the DR too
A group of retired Canadian teachers
Invited by a couple of teachers’ associations
To provide some training
To help teachers to understand
For themselves
Some of the basic concepts
They’re meant to be teaching the children
You can’t teach if you don’t understand yourself
Or so I’m told.

So they’ve gone to train the ones who
Will train others
Who will teach the children.
My mind wanders to my two boys
Early victors in the lottery of life
And how will I, how will their mother and I
Teach them to live?
Model that life?
Reflect with them on the life Jesus calls us to live?

Poor as shit.
Total squalor.
The old guy repeats.
It’s bad, man. Really bad.

The reality of that statement lingers.
Silence overcomes the table…

Until the other guy breaks the silence
“You know what?”
He sits there.
Thinking for a second.
And then jumps right in:
“I don’t really care if they’re Baptist or Catholic or whatever.
But what they need to do is believe in Jesus.
What they need to do is repent of their sins.
Turn the other cheek.
Turn around and follow Jesus.
That’s what salvation is all about.

I don’t really care
if they’re Baptist or Catholic
or whatever this place is,
But I’ve been thinking.
There’s lots of people who need help.
And we can do that.”

And ever since Lunch downstairs
At the Cathedral’s Maundy Café
I’ve been thinking
About that table and that delicious lunch
And these guys
And our conversation this week

It’s like God was setting me up
Daring me not to talk about that experience
No matter how much I wanted to avoid
The story of Zaccheus
No matter how much I wanted to avoid
A story so familiar
That I’ve come to find it dull. Trite. Boring.
What more is there to learn?

A hoarder. In the pocket of the empire.
That is to say, in the pocket of infidelity, consumption and greed
Selling out his family, friends, the entire country
Lining his pockets
Living the high life
Shopping on Alberni
Drinking fancy coffees
and savouring the best macarons

And yet Jesus sees this guy shakily hanging on
Clinging to a branch
Bewildered. Unbecoming, Out of place
Wearing his finest robes.
Up in a tree, of all places.
All bunched up and barely covering
His ass.

But, at least, out of reach of the crowds

I imagine him in the tree not just because
He’s short but because he knows
How the crowds would have felt
To see him there
Despised for the betrayals
That lined his pockets
And filled his purse
Alone.

And yet there at the table this week
As I heard these two guys talking
Going back and forth about poverty,
And the horrible lot of the poor
And the need for salvation
To turn to Jesus
In the midst of poverty
I found myself in a familiar internal battle,
drawn along all-too-familiar lines

I get that Jesus is on the side of the poor
But Jesus is not magic. He’s no get rich quick scheme
I get that Jesus heals the sick and the dying
But Jesus is not magic. Not everyone who prays is healed,
is saved in the way they say.

And there are plenty of us
going through plenty that
counts as serious or difficult or downright scary
And sometimes I wonder
perhaps you do too
where Jesus is in the midst of it all.

And what salvation looks like
And if you’ll ever find it
And if it looks anything like
The notion of salvation
you inherited from someone else

Here we find Jesus
On the side of the road in Jericho
Just passing through.
I can only imagine he’s stunned at the sight
Of the wide-eyed rich man
Hanging on for dear life
So that he can get a glimpse
Of the one he’s heard so much about
But has never been able to see
Zac’s got it all, but he’s searching.

Ignoring his elevated status
Jesus calls him down to earth
To learn a thing or two
About the roots of God’s kingdom

A covenant community
Of mutual relationship
And mutual transformation
In which all of God’s good creation is called
Good

In which each one comes to know,
and eventually believe
that they are Beloved of God
no-one higher.
No-one lower.

Each one beloved.
Each one bearing the divine imprint
and sharing that divine spark with the world.
Each one called to embrace and live more
Deeply into that gift.

I think of Jesus, the one who we later find up his own lonely tree
Strung up
Hung out to dry
At the hands of Zaccheus’ employers
Just as ridiculous
Just as humiliating

And I wonder if Jesus sees the irony
of this moment with Zaccheus
Or if the gospel writer is the one who pastes these
Two bewildering images together
As a commentary on the ridiculousness
Of the will to power.

In this moment I find Jesus willing to meet me
– meet any of us – where we’re at.
Around lunch tables
Binge watching Netflix
In our finest Hallowe’en costumes or
Hanging on for dear life
Stuck halfway up a tree

And in his encounter with Jesus
Zaccheus discovers
There is no salvation
outside the poor
outside the poor in spirit

There is no salvation outside the admission
That I too am poor
That I too am a mess
That anything I’ve attained that can cover
Reality up
Is mere delusion

Meant to keep me from God
Meant to keep me from open, real, and vulnerable relationship
With God, God’s people, and God’s good creation
And the reality, the bare bones prophetic reality
that we’re all caught up in this mess together
That we need each other

Everything this world throws at me
Tells me that salvation comes to the upwardly mobile
To those who can cheat death
In one form or another
But Zac discovers all too quickly, all too late,
that this is not the case.

Sometimes we look at him with awe,
that he’s willing to give it all up
repaying more than what he stole.
But I see his actions as the beginning of wisdom
I see him finally getting the Jesus message
That living high on the hog
isn’t kosher on the way of Jesus.

On Wednesday, my time around the table ended with a prophetic challenge.
The guy who was talking about salvation
left me, and leaves us with these words:
“What do I think they should do?” He said
They should take
Five, maybe ten dollars off my cheque
All our cheques
And give it to them.
Send that money to Haiti.
If it’s as bad as you say.
They could sure use the money better than me.

And look at us,
we’re doing fine.
It’s cheque day.
We’re sitting here enjoying this lunch
But there are some people
Some people who really need the money.
And they should get it.

Otherwise it’s just not right.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as an Assistant for Evangelism & Christian Formation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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One Response to “Hanging on For Dear Life”

  1. Brian Walsh

    Once upon a time there was a poet of the dispossessed in the Downtown Eastside. I think that my friend Bud Osborn would have resonated with these words, Andrew. You know how some singers ask, is this song good enough for Woody Guthrie? Dare I try to stand in Woody’s shadow as I write a song? There are times when I ask the same question of something that I write. What would Bud think? Does this come anywhere close to being able to stand beside, or maybe within a hundred metres of Bud Osborn? Well, this piece reminds me of Bud, and I think that it can stand at least close to the neighbourhood that he loved and called home.

    Reply

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