Some of you will remember the movie Blindside. It is the true story of Michael Oher. Abandoned by his drug addicted mother, his uncle took him in long enough to be able to petition a local private school to accept him on full scholarship. But then the uncle, due to intense conflict with his wife, gave up on supporting Michael, a high schooler, and Michael found himself homeless. He would sneak into the school gym at night to get out of the cold, carrying his one change of clothes in a plastic grocery bag, and wash up in the bathroom, sleep, and then sneak out before anyone knew he was there. It was obvious he was different. Fellow students ridiculed him. He was an outcast. One night Leigh Anne Touhy, played by Sandra Bullock, was leaving a school event with her husband and two children and saw Michael walking down the street shivering in the cold. A devout Christian, she told her husband to pull the car to the side of the road. She got out and approached Michael, asking him where he was going, and when she finally got the truth she said, “Get in the car, Michael. You’re coming to our house to sleep tonight.” And Michael agreed. This family then took Michael in…an outcast from the projects. Took him into their own home, introduced him to football, for which he had a particular talent, hired a tutor, and, after Leigh Anne sought out his mother and realized she would never be able to care for her son, the Touhys adopted Michael as one of their own. After a most successful high school football experience Michael went on to college on a football scholarship and today plays for the Baltimore Ravens. The mother in this movie said, “Get in the car Michael. You’re coming to our house to sleep tonight.” She welcomed him into the intimacy of human life with them. And, as she described it toward the end of the movie, Michael gave much more to her family then they did to him. The big hero in this story was not Michael but Leigh Anne who represented Christ to the outcast and to all of us.
The big hero in our gospel story today is not Zaccheus but Jesus. Zaccheus, a hated tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief tax collector, was an outcast by reputation. As we heard in last week’s sermon, also about a tax collector, this occupation in first century Palestine was looked upon by society as abhorrent because its methods were so rife with dishonesty and flagrant wealth gained at the expense of others. Yet Zaccheus, for some reason, having heard that this man Jesus was passing through his town, climbed up into a sycamore tree so he could get a better look, his view having become too obstructed to see Jesus…too obstructed to see truth. From a new perspective, he saw his savior. And Jesus saw Zaccheus. He said, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down. I must stay at your house today.” I must stay. So Zaccheus hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Jesus declared that salvation had come to the house of Zaccheus that day for “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Zaccheus was lost in his greed and because of accepting the invitation from Jesus to dwell with him his view became unobstructed and he was transformed by Christ.
Our views are obstructed at times, too. We, too, meet obstacles in our longing to be connected to God…to be at peace. We, too, need a broader perspective of what it means to have an intimate relationship with Christ…intimate friendships with one another. Real friendship. To get to that intimacy we have to risk being open and honest, we have to risk sharing deeply.
A few weeks ago, our presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was on a panel with the Dalai Lama and others at Emory University for the Interfaith Summit on Happiness. (I love that: the Interfaith Summit on Happiness.) She spoke of happiness coming from true friendships…friendships defined by intimacy. She pointed out that one can love one’s neighbor without intimacy, that is, we can give food, or send money to a worthy cause, or be kind to someone without really getting to know them. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but to have real friendship…real intimacy, there must be risk…risk in being affectionate and vulnerable. Bishop Schori said, “Ultimately this kind of friendship can be a taste of the divine relationship. Knowing and being known as gifted and flawed, fearful and courageous, warty and luminous…that ongoing process of revealing one’s being—builds friendship.” For us to have real friendships, a real walk with Christ in one another we, too, must risk, must take the time to build relationships, to let the masks come off.
Tonight on this day before All Saints Day, we celebrate All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, and this day is a perfect reminder of how we are meant to be. Many will don masks and laugh at things scary. At the end of the day we remove those masks and are presented with the opportunity to realize who we really are meant to be in Christ. I challenge you this day to take just a moment and ask God to show you what masks might need to be removed. How is the real you to express God’s unique way as only you can do?
Nearly five centuries ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther risked his very life to express his true self. He stood up to the church of Rome and a corrupt Pope Leo X and declared that people and relationships were what mattered in life and not money…not building a Cathedral on the backs of the poor. These were real people who were being fooled into thinking that if they just paid enough money to build a church, they would be saved. The church of the day was collecting indulgences, as they were called, and assured the people that if one were to pay a certain amount of money their souls would be freed from purgatory and hell. Luther retorted that if that were true then why didn’t the pope use his special power and give it freely out of love for the people (thesis 82) even if it meant selling the Basilica of St. Peter (thesis 51). So powerful was his risk, his vulnerability, that enough of the people in authority agreed with him and thus this date is given as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Reformation to the Present Day, p. 22).
It takes going out on a limb to overcome obstacles in our lives. And frequently this is painful. Recently a dear friend was willing to share something with me about me that really hurt to hear. Yet, because I know this friend cares for me greatly, in prayer I was able to hear what he had to say (though not right away) and realize something truer about who and what I am to be in this world. What a freedom. What salvation. And in that freedom to receive truth we realize that salvation and grace cannot be earned. They don’t come because we are good enough. They are pure gift, pure gift of the transformational love of Jesus Christ. What a difference it makes when we realize God’s longing to be intimate with us. What bright hope comes near in the person of Jesus! David Lose, of Luther Seminary, writes: “God, Jesus, the whole biblical story, as it turns out, isn’t primarily about justice but about relationship, God’s deep, abiding, tenacious desire to be in relationship with each and all of us.”
What obstacles are in our way of relationship with Christ? How open are we to say yes to inviting Jesus, the kingdom of God really, into our homes, our hearts? What does this look like in our lives? Perhaps it’s as easy as taking the time to ask God in prayer to show us and then listen in silence. Perhaps it’s being honest with what we know to be right in any given situation even if it means risking our pride. In the board rooms, in the myriad meetings, in families, in truth in campaigning (now there’s a concept), truth in how we vote…Perhaps it’s letting go of that which prevents us from seeing who we all are really meant to be even if it means being vulnerable to something completely new. Perhaps it is embracing being free from compulsions, addictions, self-destructive behaviors. Perhaps it is admitting our need to be freed from emptiness, meaningless, or despair, by asking God for help.
God’s mercy is wide and encourages us to keep our hearts tender and open to voices of suffering everywhere, even in ourselves. Jesus says to us as he did to Zaccheus, “When you come down from there and admit your need, we’ll talk heart to heart and I will refresh you.” Could it be that we are already forgiven? Could it be that we have a God…a savior who can love us into transformation no matter where we are? Could it be? Michael from the Blindside did not have to accept Leigh Anne’s invitation to become part of their family. Yet he did and was transformed forever.
Zaccheus did not have to accept Christ’s invitation to come down, to be intimate, to break bread, to be transformed. And neither do we have to accept the invitation, but make no mistake, Jesus invites us, too. We can fall into the arms of God when we pray, when we partake of Holy Communion in Christ around this table. We can open to the possibilities and the humbling evolutionary potential of our lives in Christ. We can take a few tips from Zaccheus here—he humbled himself. He was not thinking about appearances, not trying to be anyone but himself. He just wanted to see Jesus. And Jesus already saw him. Amen.