Sermon preached November 3, 2013
Texts: Luke 19:1-10
Many of you know that my family and I lived for seven years in Dallas, Texas. Our daughter Sarah was born there. She is a Texan by birth. These days when the Vikings play the Cowboys are difficult for our son, David. He grew up a Cowboy’s fan.
When we lived in Dallas we lived in a townhouse apartment in a complex of such apartments. Over the years we had various neighbors. One who lived next door to us for a few years was a man, a large man. He lived there with his wife and two children. Jerry was his name. Jerry looked like he could have played linebacker for the Cowboys. He was that big a man. Jerry often seemed to have some issues with his car, and thus was often working on this or that in the parking lot behind our apartments.
One day as I was walking out to our car, I heard Jerry say, “Dave, Dave, come give me a boost.” Now in my upper Midwest understanding, giving somebody a boost meant helping them climb something, maybe putting your hands together and lifting them up. “Dave, Dave, come give me a boost.” The thought of lifting Jerry up anyplace was absurd. He was a really big guy. Thankfully, my jaw did not drop nor my eyes squinch before the context made his request clear. He wanted me to use some jumper cables to help him get his car started.
Zacchaeus was not a Jerry sized guy. He wasn’t playing linebacker for anybody. But Zacchaeus needed some help. He needed to get higher, to get elevated. Did he need a boost to get up into the sycamore tree? The story doesn’t indicate that, but he sure needed to get up into that tree to see Jesus.
Sometimes we need a boost to get a better look at Jesus. Sometimes we need a little help from our friends if we are to move forward in our lives, if we are to live the Jesus way more adequately. Sometimes we need someone to be a tree branch for us. That may not be the most flattering image, unless you know the story of St. Kevin. St. Kevin is an Irish saint, who was praying in his tiny, narrow monastic cell with his arm stretched out a window when a bird came and landed in his hand. Seamus Heaney tells the story in his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird.”
Kevin feels that warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws, and finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
Don’t we need people who can hold us up until something in us is hatched and fledged and flown, something of our spirit?
All Saint’s Sunday is about celebrating those people who give us a boost so we can see Jesus a little bit better, so we can hear him a little more clearly, so we can follow him a little more nearly. There’s almost a song here! All Saint’s Sunday is about remembering and celebrating those who have held us until something essential about us is hatched and fledged and flown. Today we remember and celebrate those who have seen us as beloved people of God, those who have helped form us in faith, who have encouraged us along the Jesus way. While it is often those who have moved on from this life that we pay special attention to, this is a day for all those who have been saints for us, all those who have given us a boost, all those who have held us in the sun and rain of life.
For many of us it is a day to remember family - grandparents or parents. My mom is here today and she is part of the reason I am here today. As many of you know, my dad was not a church goer. My mom was not a driver, but she was the one who got us up and walked with us the eight blocks to church on many Sunday mornings.
Other family members are important to our faith. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how my own family, Julie and our children, inspire me. They have often given me a boost so I can see and hear Jesus more clearly in my life.
Along the way there have been teachers who have encouraged gifts in us. Coming back to Duluth I have had the wonderful opportunity to see some of the teachers who encouraged me to develop some of God’s gifts in me. Sometimes they have even found their way here.
There are church people - pastors, teachers, friends, who give us a boost so we can see and hear and follow Jesus more closely. For me, there are a number of pastors who are my friends who have boosted me along the way, who have held me until something in me has been hatched and fledged and flown. Over the years, this day has become a very special day as I recall with fondness the gifts of God given in those we will remember in a few moments.
The saints we know in person are often those with the most impact, but there is such a thing as saints from a distance. For me my faith has often been given a boost by theologians, poets, novelists, philosophers, essayists, musicians. Some of the writers and artists who have helped me see the world more broadly and deeply, and thus to see Jesus in new ways have been Christians. Some have been quiet Christians, like Seamus Heaney, about whom you are probably getting tired of hearing me speak. Some have had very little to say about faith. This past week the musician Lou Reed died. His music, among other things, helped me hear beauty in new ways. His words combined an open-eyed look at some of the gritty realities of the world with a celebration of love and tenderness.
In my first year of college, I wrote to myself that the three people having the most influence on my thinking at that time were Abraham Maslow, a Jewish-humanist psychologist, Alan Watts, a former Episcopal priest who left the ministry to teach Buddhism, and Taoism, and Bob Dylan. In some ways their thinking and artistry held me until something in me was hatched and fledged and flown. I am a better follower of Jesus because of them, and because of so many.
This week I watched a TED talk by a young man named Joseph Kim, a young man who escaped from North Korea and eventually made his way to the United States. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLeeTVmVrtA] Kim tells his heart-breaking, hopeful story and among the things he shares is how he was inspired by small acts of love. Joseph was not a good student, and struggled in school. One evening at dinner with his foster family, when Joseph wanted another chicken wing, but refrained because there wasn’t enough, he found the last wing put on his plate by his foster father. It reminded him of how often his biological father had sacrificed some of his own food to keep his son fed. “That chicken wing changed my life.” It motivated Joseph to work hard in school.
If All Saint’s Sunday is celebrating those people who have given us a boost along the way so that we can see and hear and follow Jesus better, if it is celebrating those who have held us until something in us is hatched and fledged and flown, it is also intended to be a day when we rededicate ourselves to being saints for others. Zacchaeus is changed in his encounter with Jesus. He is moved to help the poor and make up for whatever damage he has caused. He wants to boost the lives of others.
I was in North Carolina earlier this week. On the return plane ride to Minneapolis, the man sitting next to me, a man who was wearing a cap and jeans and had carried on a camouflage duffle bag, looked at me in my coat and tie and said, “You don’t look like you’re going to Minnesota to go hunting.” No I wasn’t and I figured that it would not be too long until I had to tell him what I did. I am the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Duluth, the Coppertop Church. He knew where it was. He was from northern Wisconsin. After a bit, he said, “I bet you deal with a lot of tragedy.” ‘I guess I do.” “My grandson is really struggling. He is ten and has lost both his grandmothers in the last two years. He is asking a lot of questions, asking me if I am going to be going too.” I mentioned something about grief resources, but coming to Duluth was not really an option. I wish I had some magic words to share with this man for his grandson, but there are none. “The best thing you can do for him is just be there for him.” As we got off the plane in Minneapolis I asked him his grandson’s name. “Justin.” I said that I would pray for Justin. I have. We did.
I don’t know what good I did, but I know that as a follower of Jesus who has been given a boost by so many, who has been held by so many along the way, I have to try and hold others, too, until something in them is hatched and fledged and flown. The Jesus way is the way of small acts of love that help give life and hope. On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember and celebrate the saints in our lives even as we rededicate ourselves, in the strength of God’s Spirit, to be saints for others. Amen.