The Adventurous Lectionary – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – November 3, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144, II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
This week, we are challenged to ponder the nature of spiritual stature. The times call for large spirited people, welcoming and imaginative, able to look beyond the latest sound byte to see the broad expanse of history, able to go beyond fear and alienation in relation to the evils of our time to embrace the moral arc of history. In a time in which the nation’s leaders go from one moment to another without strategy and in which the church is confronted by the realities of cascading social and religious changes, we need to join the long view with the present moment. We need to see eternity in the midst of time and providence moving through the maelstrom of history.
In one of his essays, “S-I-Z-E is the Measure,” process theologian Bernard Loomer describes spiritual stature as follows:
“By size I mean the stature of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.”
Persons of stature have large spirits and visions. They can entertain contrasting viewpoints without losing their spiritual center. They see diversity as a call to creative transformation and not fearful retreat. Persons of stature intone their own versions of a prayer noted by theologian and spiritual guide Howard Thurman.
Each night my bonny, sturdy lad
Persists in adding to his now I lay me
Down to sleep, the earnest wistful plea:
“God, make me big.”
And I, his mother, with greater need,
Do echo in a humbled, contrite heart,
“God, make me big.”
God make us big. Make us people of large spirits, attentive to the divine flow in and around us, open to novelty and preserving our integrity in our pluralistic age.
In the passage from Habakkuk, the watchman seeks a wider perspective on the current national situation. He goes to the watch tower to gain insight and wisdom in a time of national crisis. God appears absent, the nation is in chaos, injustice abounds. Leaders have lost their reason and forsaken the paths of justice. In a time like Habakkuk’s and our own, we can easily give up hope or succumb to focusing on survival alone or yearning for yesterday’s world. We can lose hope and succumb to hatred.
As he looks at the horizon, Habakkuk hears God’s voice, “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time.” The present moment is not the sum of reality. Injustice is not the aim of history, nor is it the will of God. Pause, open your senses, and awaken to a larger vision of history, your life, and the world. The future beckons us forward to new horizons embedded in today’s challenges.
In the current political and religious season, we are tempted to visions that are too small. Indeed, many politicians ask us to think small, fear the future, and yearn for the good old days of homogeneity. We hear that we are “losing,” and that lower taxes, building walls, and continued consumption of fossil fuels are all we can aspire to. Greed and power are the name of the game. We focus on the middle class, but forget the millions stuck in poverty as well as the homeless. We want to lower our taxes, and with it fewer social services, while expanding military spending. We fail to chart large visions for our nation and the planet. No one speaks of sacrifice, even though the times call for simplicity so that others, including non-human species and the ecosystem, can simply survive. We need big visions, big spirits, and fat souls, as process theologian Patricia Adams Farmer asserts. (See Patricia Adams Farmer, “Fat Soul: A Philosophy of S-I-Z-E.”)
The story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus portrays the quest for spiritual stature. Jesus is passing by but Zacchaeus can’t see him because he is “short in stature.” The gospel writer, I believe, is pointing Zacchaeus’ height; he is also describing his spirit. Before he heard of Jesus’ visit to his visit, Zacchaeus had a small soul; in fact, he may have intentionally cultivated a cramped spirit, focusing primarily on prosperity and property to the exclusion of healthy relationships with his community. His small spirit allowed him to deny the pain he inflicted on others. Small in stature, Zacchaeus climbs a tree: he needs a larger vision, he needs to see Jesus more clearly, and gain a larger perspective. He is being called from individualism to community care, self-interest to compassion, oppression to reconciliation. Vision is both spiritual and visual for this Jericho tax collector. Like the hero of Jesus’ parable taking place on the way to Jericho, he needs to expand his world view and his empathy toward his neighbors.
When Jesus notices Zacchaeus, he invites himself to this tax collector’s home. The community is scandalized and Zacchaeus self-righteous neighbors are grumbling. Despite his affluence, Zacchaeus is a social outcast due to his occupation as a Roman agent. Jesus can’t possibly want to dine with him. Yet, Jesus’ spiritual stature allowed him to embrace the clean and the unclean, the righteous and sinful, the socially acceptable and the social pariahs. Jesus thinks big. He looks beyond appearances and social mores to discern God’s depths in Zacchaeus and expand the circle of God’s love.
Stature is contagious and Zacchaeus experiences a larger vision of himself and his calling. Wealth is no longer his highest value; he makes a commitment to spiritual transformation, revealed in financial honesty, reparation if needed, and generosity. The encounter concludes with Jesus proclaiming that salvation, wholeness and healing, has come to those who were presumed to be lost. Salvation is about a larger perspective, a new vision of reality, values, and vocation. Salvation is universal: all who respond to God’s invitation are saved!
Present limitations can constrict our visions. We can be imprisoned by our desire for security, safety, and affluence. God wants us to have large visions and large spirits to match the challenges of our time. Let us like Jesus grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humankind.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA and a professor in theology, spirituality, and ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. He is the author of forty books including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure,” and “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World.” He is available for seminars, lectures, and consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org.