My husband, Chris, and I live with a dachshund named Hildegard. Last summer, she was involved in an unfortunate encounter with another dog when we were out walking. The other dog was not hurt, and Hildegard’s physical injuries have since healed. But last September, there was a Tuesday evening when we found ourselves rushing Hildegard to the vet.
Chris was driving; I was riding in the backseat with the dog; and go on and judge me if you want, but this is an actual thought that popped into my head: Why are these other cars going so slowly? Why aren’t they getting out of our way? Blood is gushing out of her face! If only the drivers of these cars knew we have an injured puppy in the backseat, I know they would pull over and let us pass. I know the traffic lights would turn from red to green and we’d be allowed to zoom up Brady. If only everyone could see our dog right now, I know they would help us.
Of course, I can see now how my thinking was self-centered. Maybe the drivers of the other cars were dealing with their own crises. Maybe they were rushing to the human hospital, or picking up children, or trying to get home to stop a disaster… See, we all move the through the world this way. We can’t tell what’s happening in each other’s backseats. Even when we mean to care, the truth is, we might have no idea what crisis you are living through right now.
This experience of hurrying Hildegard to the vet reminds me of a quote that Karen Anderson brought to our Lenten study a few years ago. It’s unclear who said it originally —it could be J.M. Barrie creator of Peter Pan, or it could be Plato. What Karen said was this: “Be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
There’s always a part of each other’s stories we cannot see. Everyone’s fighting a battle. Everyone is wounded in ways we cannot see, even our enemies, God knows. And that’s just it. If I truly believe God sees what I cannot, and I do believe this, then praying comes with risk. Praying involves surrendering some of my own agenda. Your ways are not my ways, O God…
Today we’re continuing our summer series on the cursing Psalms. Our Psalm of the Day, Psalm Fifty-Nine, is a song pleading with God to save my life —my enemies are trying to kill me! We’ve been hearing prayers like this all summer.
Something we hear is that inside the strident confidence, there is a shimmer of worry. “God, I know you will come through. You are my fortress! You will meet me in your steadfast love.” Inside this praise, we hear the Psalmist’s not-so-subtle desperation —Please, you’ve got to, O God. This shimmer of pleading changes the song from bragging to begging, from “I know you will help me!” to “I need you to help me!” as though there’s a chance God won’t…
This is a common theme in these cursing Psalms. Something not so common is that our Psalm of the Day comes with a possible backstory from David’s life. Now the historical evidence is shaky; I can’t tell you how Snopes would rate this, but legend has it that Psalm Fifty-Nine was composed by David when he was trying to escape the wrath of Saul (I Samuel 19:11-17).
Now Saul and David have a complicated love-hate, killing-embracing, kind of relationship. They were regularly fighting battles everyone could see, and they were each fighting battles none of us will understand. In this case, what happened was that Saul was possessed by an evil spirit from God… yeah. He tried to kill David by throwing a spear at him while David was playing music.
In what I can only imagine was some kind of ninja defense move, David continued to play, while dodging the spear. Filled with the evil spirit, Saul kept at it and sent out a team to hunt David, surveilling his home. David’s wife, Michal, caught on and stuffed his bed so David could escape out the window, and he does get away with his life. And it could be that this was his prayer while he was running:
Deliver me from my enemies, O my God, protect me from those who rise up against me…
Wake up, O God! Come to my help and see. You, LORD God of hosts are God of Israel.
You’ve got to help me. You’re my only hope.
There’s no way to pray like this and not realize what is at stake. No way to pray like this and not surrender our own agenda to God, whose ways are not our ways, who can apparently dispatch evil spirits into unsuspecting kings, (what is this?!) Let the warning be clear. When we find ourselves in a position of vulnerability and we chose to seek God, we’re actually choosing to become more vulnerable. We are subjecting ourselves to the vision of God, to the mercy of God.
And what if God sees our enemies differently than we do? What if God takes their side…
Because it sure seems like that’s what happens in the second scripture we hear today —finally, a classic story we know and love. So there was a crowd of people following Jesus trying to get close to him while he was teaching. Imagine being in that crowd. Imagine if Jesus recognized you!
As it happens, look who showed up! Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector; he’s a wealthy tax collector. He’s not just working for the Empire, he is stealing from us to line his own pockets; that’s how the game is played. Zacchaeus always gets what he wants. So should we even be surprised that he has found a way to cut in line again. Come on Jesus, deliver us from this scoundrel. Shame him or spit on him, or something! You speak for the poor, come on!
I can believe the people in the crowd were praying to God for justice; the people in the crowd were trying to seek the LORD, but they weren’t expecting this. The first thing that happened was Jesus did notice Zacchaeus, and he did call him out. He said, “Zacchaeus, come down from there; I’m staying at your house today.” You can feel the thud hit your chest. Whose side is Jesus on, anyway…
The second thing that happened provoked a recent debate among Greek translators. As it is written by the editors of our Bible and preserved in Sunday School tradition, when Jesus recognized Zacchaeus and invited himself over, Zacchaeus felt a surge of repentance. There on the spot in verse eight, Zacchaeus promised to change his ways, pay back four times what he had stolen and give half of his possessions to the poor. If that’s how it happened, you know it would shock the crowd!
According to recent scholarship by Greek experts, the verbs in verse eight are not future tense, but present tense. So instead of repenting on the spot, what happens is Zacchaeus comes clean about what he’s been doing on the side. “All this time, I’ve been giving half of my things to the poor,” he says. “Whenever I defraud someone, I pay them back four times as much.”1See these articles by D. Mark Davis and Daniel B. Clendenin
https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131028JJ.shtmlAnd if this is how it happened, you know it would shock the crowd.
Either way, Zacchaeus is not who they thought he was.
Here we prayed to God to deliver us from villains who get rich while oppressing the poor! Deliver us from our enemies who make their own cruelty into official policy! Come on God, whose side are you on.
We have come seeking God, and the danger isn’t that God won’t hear us or that God won’t care. It’s that praying like this might make us see something of what God sees. As though our own vision could be transformed by God’s vision… As though we are at the mercy of God.
I know this is a message we have heard before, but it’s one that we need right now. Right now there are people in power working to recruit you and me to join in refusing to take seriously the humanity of others. It’s not a new scheme. Look at our prison system. Look at Guantanamo.
If only we could be convinced that members of M-13 are animals, that Muslims are terrorists, that asylum-seekers are criminals, that criminals are monsters… If only we become convinced that the people spewing this rhetoric are monsters, that ICE agents are villains, that white supremacists have forfeited their human worth… If only they could get us to look at our enemies and see that their humanity doesn’t matter…
And I’m telling you, we don’t have to fall for that. For the love of God, we don’t have to fall for that.
Changing policies takes work —calling congresspeople, protesting, sending money, voting… Changing cruelty into compassion, this takes not falling for the lie. Systemic dehumanization needs sensible people to buy into it, so whenever somebody doesn’t, whenever somebody says, “Hold on. He is a human being,” you can feel the cruelty starting to crumble. Right now, it is an act of resistance to take seriously another person’s humanity.
And so it is, there is nothing safe about seeking God. There’s nothing neutral about seeing your enemy as a person, then seeing each person as divinely loved. Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. We can’t always see into each other’s backseats or into each other’s backstories. We never get the whole picture, but seriously look at the people and you will see. You will see God. LORD have mercy upon us. Amen.
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