Technically, every Sunday is Children's Sunday, but last week we celebrated their ministry among us in a very special way. Our children's choirs offered the music, children served as greeters, liturgists, and ushers. They led the "Moments with all God's Children," and even led the "Prayers of the People." We are blessed by our children every week at Church Street, if you could not be among us, you missed an awesome day of worship. This sermon is dedicated to our children and those with a child's heart for God's great world.
"Bullies, Boys, and Grace"
Rev. Sarah Varnell
“Zaccheaus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he...” be honest, as soon as the Gospel story was read and you heard the name Zaccheaus, you thought the same thing. This story takes us back to out childhood when learning bible stories meant songs, games, coloring pages, and obvious life application. As adults we tell ourselves, it’s not as complicated for children...without the worries of adulthood, to understand why Jesus says and does what he says and does. Sometimes, children know what is right, they just choose outright not to apply it to their lives, or in a moment of anger at family, friend, or peer they conveniently forget their convictions...or they get too tired or cranky or annoyed to worry about how it affects others. Somewhere in there I stopped talking about children and started addressing the condition and struggles of all God’s people.
Way back in my memory vault of Children’s Church, one of the many times we heard the story of Zaccheaus, my class was called on to perform a skit. So, we made a plan- we needed someone to play Jesus, a few people to be disciples, a Zaccheaus, a bunch of tall people to be the crowd, a sycamore tree, and some other objects for the scenery on the streets of Jericho. One kid always played Jesus, so he was assigned the part of Jesus, and the shortest kid in our group was assigned the role of Zaccheaus. I wasn’t much taller than Mark to be in the crowd, nor was I sophisticated enough to be disciple material, so I took on the role of the shrub in the road on the way to Jericho, a glamorous and not-so-essential part of the tale. If you had listened to the story with your imagination, you would know the role that I speak of. Afterall, there are no small roles, only small actors. And that particular day the shrub saved Jesus from a skinned knee! I remember not really knowing what taxes were or why they were such a big deal, and so we all felt sorry for Zaccheaus that the crowd bullied him around- poor little Zaccheaus.
As a child, this felt like a story about bullies, being nice to people, noticing the little guy (like Jesus), and making that person your friend.
Later that day I made the connection, though, about why a tax collector was a bad job, as I watched the Disney version of Robin hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham went around collecting money from the poor people who barely had enough to eat. The sweet, pudgy, Friar Tuck passed out the money, and that mean old Sheriff took it without one bit of remorse. For example, as he was walking around Nottingham one day, he stopped in at a house full of bunnies. The bunnies had many children and were very poor. One of the bunnies was celebrating his birthday and his family gave him one golden coin, but as soon as that greedy Sheriff saw the coin he swiped it up in the name of taxes! TAXES! UGH! The tables turned in my head- Zaccheaus was not poor little Zaccheaus, he was the bully! Suddenly, I no longer knew the point of the story. What was Jesus thinking? And, what were my teachers thinking teaching us to feel sorry for a mean old bully??
My confusion over this story remains the same... is it poor little Zaccheaus or poor little crowd? The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance.
It seems like, for children, you’re never big enough to do the things that you dream about doing. Conversely, for adults, you can never go back to those innocent days when life was so easy, children never know how good they have it until they don’t. Driving is one of those “issues.” When you finally realize that one day you will be behind the wheel in charge of the destination of the car, you cannot wait for the day to arrive! It means independence, control of destiny, pulling in to McDonald's anytime you crave a Happy Meal, and freedom! But as soon as 16 comes around it becomes obvious way too fast that driving brings with it responsibility, money, and higher expectations...not to mention acquiring a car. With greater power comes greater responsibility, and a little bit of the childhood excitement and curiosity over the new privilege begins to fade until one day you look in the mirror, and realize: I am an adult.
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, this was my answer: An astronaut, a ballerina, and a pizza maker. Bear in mind that my middle name is not, and will not ever be grace...and I still don’t know how to make a decent pizza without the assistance of the frozen food section at Kroger, but as a child I read every book about space travel that I could get my hands on. I remember a very significant showdown on the playground over my career aspirations. In class we were assigned to draw a picture of ourselves as an adult doing whatever it was that we wanted to do when we grew up. So I drew a picture of a woman in an astronaut suit with a tutu, ballerina slippers, and a pizza in hand. On the playground that day, we were splitting into teams for kick ball. One of my friends, who happenned to be the fastest runner in the second grade, did not pick me for his team (which was the better of the teams).
Finally, being the mix of tomboy and girlie girl that I was- wearing a skirt most everyday, but insisting on wearing shorts underneath so that I was ready to play with the boys on the playground- I asked my friend why he did not pick me. He said, “You’re a girl!” I said, “I know, soooo!” And he said, “Girls can’t be astronauts. Your picture was stupid.” Before I could argue back or push him down or throw the ball at him, the new boy in class spoke up and he said, “My Momma said that girls can do anything they want, just like boys.” From that moment on, I was in love. Finally, someone who saw me for what I was... a girl without the glass ceiling... a girl who could play kickball... a girl who would go to the moon if her heart desired. So I played my heart out for the underdog team that day, all the while keeping my eye on the new kid, the new love of my elementary school life.
Kids struggle with bullies, people that assume they have power, that really only have power when we give it over to them. Youth struggle with bullies. Adults struggle with bullies too... people in our workplaces or friends they put unnecessary pressure on us, or just the occasional jerk on the road who acts like he is the most important car on the road. Bullies come in all forms and fashions in the adult world and in kid world, and do we really deal with them all that differently as adults? I, for one, do what I did as a child... stay out of their way when I can, and when I have the opportunity to respond I get myself in more trouble my running my mouth too much.
Zaccheaus was a man who deserved my childhood pity and my adult displeasure. He was a tax collector for the occupying nation, which means that he is a traitor to his people, placing his needs above others by taking their money mercilessly. No wonder the people did not care if Zaccheaus could see Jesus that day in Jericho, Zaccheaus didn’t need Jesus. Jesus saw the lowly, and the downtrodden, and gave them worth. Zaccheaus, though small in stature, stepped on those already down and sold his soul to the occupying nation. Yet, Zaccheaus was also a child of Abraham, a child of God.
I’m sure many of you join me in having moments in your life with people that you could not stand, because they were bullies, because they were incompetent at their job, because they let the power go to their head, and you have had moments when they have become human to you. God lets you peer into their heart, or learn something about their childhood or home life that suddenly helps you to understand and even excuse their behavior. It doesn’t make it easier or better, but it does make judging them more complicated.
In the case of Zaccheaus, Jesus does a powerful thing. He actually sees Zaccheaus for who he truly is- a child of God- in need of a serious lesson in God’s grace to be applied asap to his life.
So, Jesus, in front of the crowd, applies the difficult challenge he offers in Matthew 5:43-46, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?”
Now it seems that bullying has soared to new levels in our modern times with even more complicated results. In the last month alone 4 teenagers have taken their lives on account of bullying. At least two of them on account of being bullied about their sexual orientation. Talk show host and comedian, Ellen Degeneres put out a powerful response to this in a short blurb calling people in this country to do something about it, she says, “this needs to be a wake up call to everyone that bullying is an epidemic in this country. One life lost is a tragedy, and four lives lost is a crisis...” And then she says to those being bullied: “things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”
So, hear me clearly when I say that Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but loving your enemies doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself in a position to take the abuse of a bully- at home, in the workplace, or anywhere else in the world. If you are in this position, I join my voice with the wise words of Ellen, “there is help out there, and you need support.” Dear friends, you too are a child of God, and God does not put us in relationship with others to be abused, physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. Being a child of God, you have a built in family and the way God's children approach bullies is by recognizing the humanity in the bully, standing together and saying, "No more."
Also, keep in mind, we are not Jesus in this story. It is significant that JESUS is the one who has the power and the ability to change Zaccheaus’ heart. Don’t try to be Jesus in your life, you cannot change someone, so don't convince yourself to take abuse in the hope of changing them. Rather, pray that the power of God will work in the lives of the Zaccheauses that you face, but recognize that is a work only performed by God, who has the power to set us free from whatever holds us captive.
Zaccheaus was a wee little man, a tax collector and traitor to his people, and a child of God. May we be people of grace who advocate for the oppressed, who love our enemies and our friends, and above all, with the curiosity of a child, may we love and cherish the God who made a way when there was no way and who does new things with old stories in our midst. The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance...and even as we look in the mirror and see the adult looking back at us, we’re still learning this lesson.
Take a moment, pray for your enemies... pray for bullies... pray for victims...pray especially for our children.