Space For God (www.spaceforgod.org.au) continued its tradition of experimentalism on Sunday as I spoke from behind a partition to the rest of the gathering to illustrate the debilitating effect of the walls that exist between people and the walls that exist between people and God. It's a big world so I am loathe to say that this is a first, but I can honestly say that I've never heard of any church doing this before. Perhaps you know of such an approach and can tell me where it happened and how it worked at that gathering?
The effect of having a barrier blocking me from the rest of the gathering so that they could hear my voice but not see my face was difficult both for me as well as the rest of the community. I know that in the age of the Podcast this is typical, but the fact that the gathering knew where the voice was coming from and knew that I was so close, yet so far away made it somewhat different. Funnily enough, even though I couldn't see people looking at me, I was somewhat more self-conscious than I would have been if no such wall existed.
We started by looking at the walls that we put up to protect us from ourselves. I pointed out that being human can entail a lot of responsibility towards others, so by refusing to affirm our own humanity, we are able to ignore the humanity in others. It is tough to be honest with ourselves, but this is what we need to do if we are to be of any use in the Kingdom of God.
Our first lectionary reading from Amos 8:4-7 spoke about the walls of greed that prevented the elite in Israel from either responding to the needs of the poor or relating to God. Religious observance had merely become an obstacle in the way of making more money. As soon as these people had gone through the motions of religious observance, they were back in the market. Not only did they neglect the needs of the poor, but they actively sought to exploit their vulnerabilities by ripping them off with dishonest measures. They would then use their ill-gained profit to employ the poor as cut-price labour so as to expand their respective empires.
Our second lectionary reading was the story of Jesus and Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10. Just like the people in Amos' time, Zaccheus became wealthy through using his position as a tax-collector to rip people off. Presumably, it would have been the poor of the land that were most at risk. However, Zaccheus' wealth came at a price. He had power without glory. Among the A-listers in Jericho, Zaccheus was seen as a social pariah. I suspect that rather than guilting Zaccheus into changing his ways, it would have reinforced his behaviour. After consistently being denigrated as less than human by the social set, I suspect that Zaccheus would have begun to see himself in this way. And if you're not truly human, why are you obligated to act in a truly human way towards others?
Zaccheus had one other wall. He was short. Unable to see over the crowd of people flocking to see Jesus appear, Zaccheus climbs a sycamore tree. (Just as a tangent, it is interesting to note that before Amos got into the business of being a prophet, Amos 7:14 states that he actually looked after sycamore trees for a living. What significance this has, I don't know.) Jesus sees him and decides to invite himself over to Zaccheus' place. This isn't a rude gesture - it's a way to affirm that Zaccheus can be useful. And by affirming that Zaccheus could be useful, Jesus was affirming Zaccheus' humanity. For the first time in ages, Zaccheus was forced to see himself as a human. And as a human he was forced to acknowledge that he had responsibilities towards others besides himself. We don't know the details of the conversation that took place at Zaccheus' house, but it must of had a profound effect on him - Zaccheus pledged to give away half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount to anyone he had ripped off. And so, in one short day, an entire lifetime of unscrupulous business practices were completely and irrevocably changed.
One of the things that struck me about this passage was the juxtaposition of Jesus' response to Zaccheus with the response of Zaccheus' accusers and the result that each response had. While the condemnation of Zaccheus by his accusers actually reinforced his behaviour, the affirmation of Zaccheus as a person of worth by Jesus actually encouraged Zaccheus to see himself as someone who could actually positively contribute to the lives of others. This is a great challenge to us in the way that we respond to those who oppress and exploit others. By rejecting them as people, we reinforce their behaviour. But by affirming them, loving them and praying for them, we chip away the walls that prevent them from seeing that they are truly human and that they have a responsibility to act in a truly human manner towards others.