The Call to Come On Down!
November 3, 2019
Good Morning 8th Day Friends! I was asked by the Servants Group to do one of this Fall’s first Sunday teachings on “CALL” for this month. As you recall, David Hilfiker gave the first one last month. I will share some of my personal experiences with call, but I also think we need to think of call in the context of community and even a corporate “community call.” In the C of S, call has been received in general by individuals who then call a group together to work out and fulfill that call. We also speak often of “my call” or “her call” to a specific vocation or ministry. However, both in the Bible and historically in Church of the Saviour, communities are called to act together.
In the story of Exodus, for instance, the Hebrew people were called by God, and led by Moses as a community, to leave the land of Pharaoh and go into the desert and eventual freedom. When Gordon led the way into the “New Land” of the Church of the Savior in 1975-76, communities were encouraged to form around a corporate community call. For instance, Seekers was formed around the call of FLOC and I believe that 8th Day was focused strongly on the Polycultural Institute, and later became involved with the Sanctuary movement. These calls were specific responses to a critical time in both the Hebrew nation and our nation’s history. I believe we have such a critical time now in our country, and that it would be well for us to think about what our corporate call is for 8th Day. Perhaps we are to rally around the call to Bridges to Democracy which was issued recently. Perhaps we need to consider that as a community we address the ultimate existential crisis of climate change or combat racism which seems to be especially visible and vitriolic in our country now. I have some specific thoughts about this which I will share later.
But first I will look at our Scripture passage for today from Luke chapter 9 about Zacchaeus. Jesus is walking through Jericho, and Zacchaeus, who is a short man, climbs up a tree ahead of the crowd to see Jesus. Now, Zacchaeus was not liked by his fellow countrymen because he was a tax collector and very rich. This would be rather like a chief IRS officer climbing a tree (or on top of a building) to see Reverend Barber on one of his Poor People’s Campaign marches. Most of the people on that march would not be very sympathetic toward a well-to-do IRS officer in a tree overlooking the march, and would probably be quite suspicious of the motives of that officer. Zacchaeus’ compatriots had the same reaction and,ss when Jesus calls him to come down so he can visit him at his house, the people are shocked and disgruntled – Jesus going to the home of a sinner?
In thinking about this passage, I wonder about this Zacchaeus. First of all, I wonder if he thought he would be able to see Jesus – and the crowd – without being noticed. He was I’m quite sure, very aware of how people felt about tax collectors – and wealthy ones at that – and he probably knew he wouldn’t be particularly welcome in that crowd. Also, I wonder if he thought he would be completely excluded by the group around Jesus, because of his job and his riches – which would be seen as part of the oppression of the Romans who taxed the common people heavily. Jesus often railed against the elite of society, including the Scribes and Pharisees, who colluded with the Romans to demand fees, taxes and other wealth from the common people and who helped to ensure the peace among an often rebellious people. Surely a chief tax collector would be seen by the common people as part of the oppressive system which caused them impossible debt burdens. In essence, Zacchaeus was part of the ruling elite who perpetuated huge financial burdens for the rest of the Jewish society. No wonder people were upset by Jesus giving him special attention. I’m sure Zacchaeus himself was rather shocked that Jesus would even pay attention to him, let alone ask to come to his house that day! In fact he is so shocked that he claims he will give away half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone whom he may have cheated 4 times the amount. (It would be hard to believe any IRS Agent would say that in our day!)
So I wonder why Luke included this story in his Gospel. Most of the stories are about other types of sinners, sick, poor, broken people who are “saved” from their bondage. Most people probably thought the tax collector was already saved from bondage – had everything he needed and could live a happy life without any help from Jesus. However, I think this story is for those of us who think we are living fulfilled and happy lives. I think it is to show that Jesus wants every one of us to come down out of our trees where we are happily observing the crowd and welcome Jesus into our hearts and our homes. Jesus has room for the rich as well as the poor, the sick and the well, the broken and the healers. Zacchaeus must have already had a sense of the oppression that he was a part of as a tax collector. He may have been wanting to join Jesus’ movement, had a longing to be a part of something bigger, of wanting to be on the side of righteousness, and not daring to ask Jesus face to face – not knowing how he could belong. If this longing wasn’t present in him, he would not have “scrambled out of the tree” (as The Message puts it) to meet Jesus face-to-face. He must have experienced great joy in that moment of greeting. This is what being called by God feels like.
Thinking about how Jesus called Zacchaeus out of his tree, reminds me of a bit of my personal journey with being called by God. There was a time in my life when I was in my early 20’s, having left the Bruderhof, where I was raised, when I was working in the Albany/Troy area as a teacher of four-year olds in a nursery school run by the Daughters of Charity. Sister Anita knew where I had come from and introduced me to a charismatic Catholic lay group, which met on Wednesday evenings. I attended there for a couple of years. However, for me, just having a weekly service wasn’t enough. Even then I knew I missed community and wanted to be involved in some sort of social action. I went to the Albany Public Library to find books on community. On a tiny shelf way upstairs were 5 books – 3 of which I was already familiar with. However, one title I didn’t recognize stood out, and that was Elizabeth O’Connor’s first book, Call to Commitment. After reading the book, I wrote to Betty O asking, “Is the Spirit still moving in the Church of the Saviour? She replied “yes” and invited me to a Community Retreat at Dayspring. I went, and felt I had come Home to Jesus! There I felt it was OK to be on a Spiritual journey, where I could be myself, no questions were taboo, and the questions were valued more than the answers. I ended up with the Sisters driving my seven boxes of worldly goods in a station wagon to D.C., and the rest is history. I believe that was the first time I knew without a doubt that God had guided me and called me here.
After that experience of being miraculously called by God to a new spiritual home where I truly felt at HOME, I went through several iterations of call. I joined the Friday night Potters House group immediately, in order to have a small group to belong to and be nurtured by. Later, there were other calls, but the one in which I felt I took the most risk was Arts in Action, an arts empowerment program for inner-city kids in various schools and other settings. After seven years, the time came for me to lay that call down, which was very difficult. It was not ended because I was no longer called to the work, but because I was unable to raise the money to make it work. It felt - and still feels to some extent - like a personal failing on my part, although done with the discernment of others. I include this piece of “call” as one of the risks you take when you step out to answer a call. There is a time when you either have to lay it down, or like Elijah throwing his mantel onto Elisha at the end of his journey, you need to give others the blessing to carry the torch forward. I hope that we elders in 8th Day will be able to do this gracefully with the younger leaders in our 8th Day Faith Community!
Answering call requires humility and a willingness to make mistakes, learn from them, fail, and start again. Zacchaeus had to “Come on Down” from the sycamore tree – not just stay up there safe and secure, watching the scene. He had to face Jesus, whom he may have feared would be critical of his vocation. In the story of Naaman, which was in our lectionary recently, he, too, had to humble himself. He heard that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him from leprosy. However, he does not want to do the ritual of washing himself in the Jordan, because he thinks the rivers in Damascus are better. He almost goes back to his country unhealed, but his servants tell him to do the thing that he was asked to do by Elisha the Prophet. He relents, humbles himself and washes in the Jordan – and is healed.
So where do we need to come on down in our lives. Where do we need to become humble enough to hear where God is calling us individually? And where do we need to be obedient to the call of God as a community? The servants of Naaman ask him, “If the prophet had bidden you to do something difficult, would you not do it?” Naaman needed his community, his servants, to fully grasp what he was being called to do. He also needed the humility to listen to his servants.
That question of the servants reminds me of the story that our facilitator told in a discussion after a play about race which a number of us saw recently, called Fairview. In the play the main character, who is a teenager, speaks after there is a total breakdown in the family during a family dinner. The breakdown is caused by the disease of White Racism and White Superiority – shown through metaphor in the play. The teenager asks White People if we could “trade” places. She then repeatedly invites the White People in the audience if we would come up on the stage. Eventually a lot did. After the play there was a Black Caucus discussion and a White Caucus discussion. In the White discussion, the facilitator asked us whether we went on the stage (or not) and what made us decide to do so - or not. Then she told the story of a woman who said she didn’t do it because it “wouldn’t make any difference.” This really struck me. I, too, want to make a difference – do something grand to change racism in this country, to change the whole system of oppression. Do I neglect the small things because I’m too proud to do a small thing? Is this White Superiority speaking – that unless we are doing something grand, it’s not worth doing?
A member of the Racial Justice and Healing Cooperative, my mission group, often says, “Will you White people speak up against racism in different situations? Will you stand with us?” In the play, the girl asks, “Will you have my back?” One of our Black group members recalls when walking through a predominantly Black neighborhood he assured his White friend he would “have his back.” However, when he asked his White friend, “Would you have my back if I were in your neighborhood?” there was a long pause before the White friend answered. Others in the group observed that Black people are much quicker to forgive White transgressors than the other way around. Witness the response of the Black families of the victims of the young white supremacist who shot nine black church members during a Bible study where he was welcomed into their Charleston Emanuel church.
Now I would like to mention something quite close to home – namely a conflict in our 8th Day Faith Community. Two years ago our Racial Justice and Healing Collective met with the Servants Group of 8th Day. Ironically, we had radically different agendas presented on that day. Our Racial Justice and Healing Collective thought we had been asked to do a Race Workshop with the Servants Group. The Servants Group thought we were discussing an idea to become Sister Communities. There were literally two separate agendas created. I just found the notes I had done after the six-hour long day. As far as I know, there has been little follow-up, as our paths seemed to diverge at that point. I still find it sad and somewhat mystifying that our two groups were unable to come to some path forward together since that day.
Some in this church may feel that we shouldn’t be airing our dirty laundry like this. However, I believe that confusion and disappointment which happened that day was symptomatic of something that underlies the divisions in our country. There are issues that have to get onto the table for us to be able to grow and transform into the community we want to be. I believe we will have to humble ourselves, like Zacchaeus, and climb down out of our tree! Friends of Jesus Church has asked us to be open to talking about Race – just as the audience for the play Fairview was after the play.
As a community, we have rejected this request. “This racial reconciliation is not our call, as it is yours, Friends of Jesus,” is our excuse. I think that we as a community have a call which God has issued, to do our part to end racism. Given the hold White racism has on our government and our society at this time in our country, I believe the church should be leading the way to combat racism. How can we expect our country to come together around divisive issues, if we as a church cannot do this? We need to be open to talking about race and to seeing where we as Whites are blind. I think we need to listen to our Friends of Jesus brothers and sisters who are asking us to dialogue about race. “How are we to be sister churches if we can’t do this simple thing of having a race conversation?” they ask. Are we too proud to do this with our Black brothers and sisters? Is this too small a thing? “If the prophet had bidden you to do something difficult, would you not do it?” the servant asks Naaman. Would we be more willing to do something grandiose to further the cause of justice?
Let us consider if we are willing and humble enough to come on down from our tree as a community and follow our Black brothers and sisters in the pursuit of justice. Are we ready to admit our White shame and guilt that prevents us from pursuing the path of anti-racism in this community? Will we recognize where White fragility gets in the way of our willingness to be in dialogue? Can we let go of our agenda to determine the path of racial reconciliation and allow our Friends of Jesus folks to take the lead? Ibram X. Kendi says in his book How to Become an Anti-Racist, “There is no such thing as a not-racist. There is only a racist or an anti-racist.” There is no neutral ground. We Whites can all play both racist and anti-racist roles and say both racist and anti-racist things – sometimes in the same breath. It’s in the doing, in obedience that we find the truth of our call. The point is not to label ourselves or others in the Good and Bad camps of Racist or Not-Racist – but to take anti- racist actions. I believe our church should take the anti-racist action of having Race dialogues with Friends of Jesus, as they have requested – and then see where our anti-racist stance takes us from there.
Zacchaeus ultimately finds joy in being sought out by Jesus and being able to welcome Jesus into his home and heart. Will we find joy when our bothers and sisters of color invite us to Come On Down from our White Supremacy tree and join us in a Sacred Race conversation which will ultimately lead to the dismantling of racism and the walls that divide us? I realize that others will have ways we need to climb on down from our trees both individually and corporately to be obedient to CALL. I realize that racism isn’t the only issue on the table. However, I do invite us to explore how we as a community can be open to dialogue and action on this critical issue of our time in our country. I ask you to be open to listening to the prophets among us who are calling us to be our best selves. Let us welcome Jesus into our hearts and homes – so we all become “friends of Jesus!”