Dean Hollerith: “To Rise Above”
O Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
There is an old story that you may have heard about a preacher who decided a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his sermon about Godly living. He placed four worms in four separate jars. The first worm he put into a jar filled with Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey. The second worm he put into a jar filled with cigar smoke. The third worm he put into a jar full of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. The last worm he placed in a jar filled with good healthy soil. At the end of the sermon, the preacher opened each jar and reported the following results – The first worm in whiskey – dead. The second worm in cigar smoke – dead. The third worm in chocolate syrup – dead. The last worm in good soil – alive and well.
At that point, the preacher turned to his congregation and asked, “My brothers and sisters, what can we learn from this demonstration?” A little old lady in the back of the church raised her hand and said – “That’s easy preacher, as long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms!”
I love that stupid old joke. To me it points out how adept we are as human beings at hearing only those things we want to hear. We are so good at only seeing reality through the lenses that support our own personal world view. We are so skilled at clinging only to those facts that confirm our own personal narratives. And we are terrible when it comes to actually listening to one another.
Our Gospel reading for today is the story of Zacchaeus. Familiar to many of us, the story of Zacchaeus is a story of self-discovery, a story of redemption, a story of one man’s attempt to rise above the narrative of his own life in order to see himself anew, in order to find forgiveness and understanding. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which in those days meant he was a Jewish citizen who collected taxes to support the hated Roman occupation. Not only did he collect taxes for the enemy, but he collected more than was required and so became rich in the process. Needless to say, Zacchaeus was among the most hated and despised members of his community.
My favorite part of this story is that this whole life changing encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus only takes place because Zacchaeus makes the decision to climb that tree, to rise above the noise and the confusion of the crowd in order to get a clear glimpse of Christ. If Zacchaeus had stayed hidden in the back of the crowd, if he hadn’t climbed that sycamore tree, he would not have seen Jesus and Jesus would not have seen him. My brothers and sisters, we are a little more than a week away from an election. On November 8, I hope everyone who can vote will vote. I know many of us will be relieved when the last ballots are cast and this election is over. It has been an election season unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. It has been an election that has laid bare the stark divisions that exist within our country and revealed a deep reservoir of anger felt by many of our fellow citizens. These have been difficult days filled with anxiety and even fear. My question to all of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus Christ is – in the days and weeks ahead, how can we rise above the noise and confusion of the crowd to discover and share the same kind of healing and redeeming love with one another that Zacchaeus discovered in Jesus? How can we climb above our own self-image, our own personal narratives, in order to better understand each other and ourselves? How can we as disciples of Christ be a non-anxious presence in our very anxious world?
In his book, Shantung Compound, the theologian Langdon Gilkey tells the story of his family’s years in a Japanese internment camp in China during the Second World War. It is a powerful account of the brutality of war and what is best and worst about human nature. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Gilkey recounts the train ride when his family and many other Westerners were rounded up by the Japanese and shipped off to an internment camp. At a time of great stress, when people were almost panicked, on a train trip going to places they did not understand, Gilkey remarked that he heard singing coming from somewhere on the train. Gilkey writes, “It came softly at first and then grew loud enough to drown out the cries of the children around us. We looked back to see a car filled with pipe smoke through which we could discern dim, monastic, bearded figures. These monks, cheerful and certainly untroubled by discomfort, were loudly singing Dutch and Belgian student drinking songs. After a moment’s surprise and delight at this totally unexpected aura of easy good humor, some of us moved back to their car, joined in lustily, and sang ourselves hoarse as the train lurched over the dark plains and into the darker unknown ahead.” Gilkey points out that these monks, in a very simple way, had risen above their situation. Their faith enabled them to climb above the fears of the crowd to point at something different. They trusted Christ more than they feared an unknown future and at that moment they knew they had an important role to play, even if that role was just to make people laugh in the midst of a difficult situation.
My brothers and sisters, in the weeks and months ahead, you and I, who follow the way of Christ, have an important role to play. We must be like those monks on the train and help our fellow travelers to see that there is something beyond our fear and anxiety. Like Zacchaeus, we must climb above the noise of the crowd and look for Jesus. As I said during my first sermon in this Cathedral, we are called to be repairers of the breach, to build up where others might tear down, to put our best selves into life and into our relationships, to repair the broken things that we can reach from our place in life.
Our culture is currently in a dysfunctional cycle of tearing down. We demonize one another, and like the little old lady at the beginning of this sermon, many of us are so locked into our own world view that we cannot actually hear what the other person is saying. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt calls this “consensual hallucinations.” Many of us only watch certain TV shows, we only go to certain websites, we only live and move in certain enclaves – all of which serve only to confirm our own favored narratives. As a result, we are not encountering one another in meaningful and profound ways. We are not being stretched and honestly challenged by the experience of those different from us. In effect, we have not been willing to pull ourselves up that sycamore tree, above the noise of our own point of view, to actually see and hear one another. How many times have I heard liberals describe conservatives as crazy or conservatives describe liberals as totally out of touch with the real world? Well, I don’t think most of us are crazy or completely out of touch, rather I think many of us are just anxious and struggling to find our way in life. The problem is that many of us are so locked in to our own narrative about the nation and the world that we cannot be empathetic. After all, it is impossible to be empathetic when you are always right and the other is always wrong.
My friends, the love of Christ is a love that saw the heart of Zacchaeus, beyond the labels of traitor, thief and tax collector. It is a love that defies labels and breaks stereotypes. The love of Christ is a love that is meant to inspire us and guide our way in this life. In the weeks and months ahead, I think it is our civic responsibility to be the monks singing on the train, to be the non-anxious presence that seeks to lessen fear and bring people together. In a very real sense that is the job of this Cathedral sitting on the top of this hill. This house of prayer for all people must be a place that seeks deeper understanding and so works to repair the breach in our national conversations. However, I am convinced we can only do this if we are willing to raise ourselves up so that we can see farther, so that we can see more clearly. The love of Christ must be our guide, not party and not ideology. In Christ, we have been shown the way that leads to health and wholeness and deep meaning in this life. Now it is our job to show this Way to others. Amen.