Regular worship services are each Sunday
at 10:30 a.m.
Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
October 30, 2016
Mike Venturino gave me my opening thoughts on Zacchaeus. He told me, “Zacchaeus gets it, doesn’t he! He’s one of my favorite characters. Just the image of this well-off member of the establishment sitting in a tree to watch Jesus is an absolute hoot.” He also made some political comments that I can’t share here. But, I ask you, do we know any wealthy and powerful people you’d never imagine wanting to visit? Who might be your least favorite person with whom to share a meal? Jesus picked the person everyone around him would have rejected!
So what do we know about this man who climbs into a tree to see Jesus? Zacchaeus, a common name in Hebrew, means innocent or clean, but tax collectors were anything but innocent and clean. They were hired by the Roman government to collect taxes. They were not paid a salary so the only way they could become rich was by taking more from the citizens. Naturally, people hated them.
That Zacchaeus was short in stature only made it easier for people to disdain him. He revealed his humility by his willingness to climb that sycamore tree in hopes of seeing Jesus pass by. What had he heard about Jesus? Why did Jesus decide to stop, look up, and declare, “I must stay at your house today.” There was something of destiny in this meeting. It certainly transformed Zacchaeus’ life!
Salvation came to his house that day not merely because he decided to “believe” in Jesus. His faith immediately expressed itself in action: He promised to give half his possessions to the poor. He said he would repay anyone he had defrauded four times as much, which was the Jewish law in these circumstances.
Zacchaeus faced his own demons, his greed, his assumption of power and privilege. He made a decision to change his life, because of his encounter with Jesus. Did he keep his promises? We don’t know.
To be transformed by the encounter with all that Jesus represents: His compassion, his courage, his profound Spirit…may be strong and powerful at first, but will require a thousand small changes and decisions over the rest of his life. If Zacchaeus was willing and able to continue to encounter the sacred spirit of God, to face his own wounds that made him feel the need to collect taxes, get rich, be an outsider, if he was able to grow up in his faith then he has something to teach us all. Jesus believed he could do it! And so do I!
So what’s your shadow side? What part of yourself do you keep hidden even (or especially) from yourself? Zacchaeus saw himself as successful until his encounter with Jesus made him re-think everything he stood for. How do other people see you? Are you aware of your own hidden motives?
The best way to discover your shadow is to ask someone who loves you and knows you, but who is also capable of being honest, someone like Jesus. That’s why for the first 1500 years of the history of the church, meditation and silent prayer was so central to its teachings. Most of us find it hard to sit in silence for very long because our shadow, our wounded ego, our obsessive thoughts and needs, take over and we just want to run away.
Thomas Keating, author of “Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation,” tells us: “one of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is that we do not perceive our own hidden motivations. Our unconscious, prerational, emotional programming from childhood and our over-identification with …groups are the sources from which our false self [what we call ego]…gradually emerges…and extends into every aspect and activity of our lives.” (p. 3)
Another way to discover our shadow is to ponder who drives us crazy; who do we hate? Who pushes our buttons? Those buttons link us to the other and if we can be honest will help us to see what we don’t want to see about ourselves. That proverbial finger pointed at another gives you a hand with three fingers pointing back at you.
But check out who you love as well. Who do you put on a pedestal? Who inspires you? Because our shadow also tends to hide our greatest gifts. What you love in others may be hidden well in yourself just waiting for a chance to shine.
Halloween has been condemned by Fundamentalist Churches for its celebration of demons, devils, witches and fear. But in ancient times this was a time to acknowledge and transform the power of darkness by facing those fears, naming the evil they wanted to exorcise. And some of what was feared was merely the power of wisdom and mystery that would better be embraced than rejected. Witch and wisdom come from the same root in English. Demon and Daemon (spirit power) also have the same root. What are we afraid of? If perfect love casts out fear, we can celebrate this playful dark season with joy. We can allow our children to discover their many sides and become more whole in the process!
But there is real evil in our world. Real darkness that must be overcome. As Matthew Fox reminds us in one of our Quiet Meditations this morning: “Evil is the shadow of angel. Just as there are angels of light, support, guidance, healing and defense, so we have experiences of shadow angels. And we have names for them: racism, sexism, homophobia are all demons - but they're not out there.” They are in here!
Many of you have been holding my son in your prayers after he was assaulted a week ago Saturday. He is recovering slowly and will be fine. But the question kept being voiced: “Why would someone do this? How could people be so violent, so mean, so cruel?” There are no easy answers, but I encourage us to reflect on the painful inequality in our world that teaches too many in poverty that their lives don’t matter, that no one’s life matters. Why do we need a “Black Lives Matter” movement? Why do we need laws protecting the LGBTQ community? Why isn’t everyone outraged by the violence against women we hear about every day in this “boys will be boys” world? As Lorraine Toussant says, “We all have a dark side. Most of us go through life avoiding direct confrontation with that aspect of ourselves, which I call the shadow self. There's a reason why. It carries a great deal of energy.”
It is the energy that I hope we will tap into by exploring who we really are in both the shadow and the light. Carl Jung said, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow!” Discover your hidden motives! Explore the psychology of your childhood wounds. Be prepared to not only face your demons, but to embrace them. Take the power hidden in the darkest corners of your life and allow God to transform them into courage and generosity and joy. That’s what Zacchaeus was able to do. I pray that he kept on doing it.
It is the courage expressed by Rumi that reminds us of why we must do this very human work of becoming whole:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
“Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Really? What do you think? I recommend that we listen and learn from our dark side.
Remember the two wolves in the iconic Native American Story? The grandfather tells his grandson that there are two wolves clamoring for attention living inside of us. Give power to the wolf of kindness and compassion, courage and honesty. But know the wolf of violence and racism and sexism and homophobia and entitlement. Feed the first but know the second is there too!
When we can meet “the dark thought, the shame, the malice, /Meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in,” accept them as they are but don’t feed them! We can learn from them and become whole, which comes from the same root as holy.
All this reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a wonderful look at how evil tries to insinuate itself into our lives. Written in 1940, in the midst of WWII, it still managed to take a playful look at the unsuccessful power of evil when the heart was turned toward God. It began with two quotes from Martin Luther and Thomas More:
Luther said, "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” And Thomas More: "The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”
C.S. Lewis goes on to say: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Remember laughter and joy in this season of vitriol and darkness. May God’s light shine through us all. and may we embrace our own shadows so that they can be transformed into light!