I delivered this sermon yesterday at the parish I am currently interning at. For the readings appointed, including the Gospel reading, click here.
Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorite stories from the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke tells us that a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, heard Jesus was coming by. He wanted to see Jesus but was unable to do so because he was “short in stature” and couldn’t see over the amount of people surrounding Jesus. I can relate to that a lot because I’m about 5’4” and most people are taller than me. I’m afraid of heights though, so I haven’t tried climbing into a tree to see someone- but I can relate to the experience of being unable to see Jesus because of a crowd.
Most people that know me know that I grew up Roman Catholic. Most people that know me also know that I’m gay. From the minute I knew that I was different than other boys, which was at age 13, it didn’t take me long to realize that there would be some…problems. My classmates in school made fun of me. My teachers didn’t know how to support me. The words of priests and bishops all sent me the same message over and over: I needed to change a fundamental part of me in order to be part of the church, and that was something I couldn’t do. That has been the experience of countless people who grow up not just in the Roman Catholic Church, but in the Christian community as a whole. It’s the experience of many folks in this parish, even. Unfortunately, the church so often embodies the crowd in this Gospel story: we surround Jesus and make it hard for other people—especially those who are marginalized, forgotten, or disliked by our society—to see or access Jesus. Sometimes we act as gatekeepers to Christ, rather than emissaries of Christ. We see churches do this explicitly, with policies that prevent women or LGBT people from taking roles in ministry, or more subtly, when the church marginalizes people for having certain stances on social issues.
In this story, Zacchaeus really wants to see Jesus, so he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up a tree to get a better look. He did what he had to do in order to have what was the most important meeting of his life. Now like I said, I don’t climb trees. But for my own part, I really loved God and the folks in my life that crowding around God made it hard for me to connect with God. I decided I really needed to leave the church if I was going to have any kind of spiritual life at all, and that was a hard decision to make. I ended up exploring a lot of different religions and spiritual traditions, and they all had something deeply profound and unique to teach me about God. But ultimately they didn’t feel like home for me.
Now going back to our story: Here is Zacchaeus up in this tree, and Jesus walks by and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” We’re told that he climbed down out of the tree in a happy mood and accepted Jesus over to his house.
In a similar way, Jesus sought me out in the past few years…but I resisted for a while. I wrote it off. When I mentioned to people that I used to be a Christian, they would ask me if I still valued or respected Jesus in any way and I would tell them, “Well, Jesus was a good teacher, and I take inspiration from his words and life”, but always stopped short of acknowledging him as divine in any way. By then I had also become aware there were many books in print that made the case for LGBTQ inclusion in the church, but I hadn’t read any of them. I thought, “All of that is nice, but not for me.”
I liked keeping Jesus at an arm’s length, I think, because I was still afraid of the people surrounding Jesus, that is, the church.
But I found myself secretly wanting to re-kindle this relationship with Christ. It was something that I had never turned off entirely, something that occasionally sneaked back into my life. I would sometimes go off to Eucharist at an Episcopal church and I was never entirely certain why I was there, but I liked being there, even though I would continue to say, “Not for me.” I think I knew deep down that if I wanted to do this whole Christianity thing again, it would mean that I would have to become part of the church again, and I was certain that was something I did not want to do.
Fast forward to February of this past year. I was well into my last semester of my undergraduate work. I was having some personal issues in my life, and I was going through periods of doubt and really questioning what I had come to believe at that point in my life, and found it all to be lacking. I didn’t really know where to go or what to do. For some reason I felt prompted to read the Gospels for the first time in years – and I opened to a story from the Gospel of John where Jesus appears to the disciples during a storm. My own life felt very dark and stormy, and I resonated a lot with the disciples in that moment—afraid and uncertain. But then the Lord appears to them and says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (6:20). That appealed a lot to me in that moment. I thought, maybe I should give Jesus another chance.
Not too long after that I walked into an Episcopal church for Mass, and I sat under a stained glass window, and I saw that it depicted the same story from the Gospel of John that I had read. That was too perfect for me to write it off as a coincidence. I have since become a member of the Episcopal Church. I feel a lot more integrated now, and really blessed to have a family that loves and supports me, and a church that also loves and supports me and honors the gifts I bring to the community.
My perspective of Jesus has changed in the time I was outside the church. I had made a lot of friends who were gay and Christian and really demonstrated to me that it was possible to be a happy gay man (no pun intended) and a devout Christian. The Jesus that they knew and loved was not unlike the Jesus that I grew up with: a Jesus that invited everyone into God’s Kingdom, a Jesus that healed the sick and fed the hungry, a Jesus that loved them beyond measure. The stories of my friends touched me in an incredibly profound way. This is the Jesus I love and worship. This is the Jesus I share with others. This is the same Jesus that called Zacchaeus out of the tree and said, “I need to stay at your house today.”
Now my point is not to tell you to leave the church so you can understand Jesus better. My point is to remind you that we are not called to be a crowd surrounding Jesus and keeping him from other people. We are called to minister to those the world forgets and maligns and give them seats of honor. We are called to be like Christ and look for those who have been excluded and invite them to the banquet our Lord is preparing for us. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”