To See or Not To See

Sometimes good stories trigger memories:

  • When I think of “The Wizard of Oz,” I think of getting to eat dinner in front of the TV…something that otherwise never happened in our house when I was growing up.
  • When I think of the Harry Potter books, I think of sitting on our couch with each of the boys, reading out loud to them…and them making me do the character voices.
  • When I think of “The Sound of Music,” I think of Lori and her sisters, who would watch that movie every day if they could.

Good stories can trigger powerful memories.

I had a similar experience when I looked at the Gospel text for this weekend’s worship.  When I saw that it was the story of Zacchaeus, an image immediately came to mind:  Flannel board.  You might be of a certain age, if you remember flannel boards.  You might call it the very first “video-on-demand system.”  There was a board, covered with flannel cloth.  And you could take characters or letters, cut them out of felt, and they would stick to the board, and you could create scenes, or stories.

As a child in Sunday School, I have a vivid memory of the little felt figure of Zacchaeus, climbing up a little felt tree.  And then we’d sing:

<sing>: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man…a wee little man was he…” Remember later on today when you find yourself humming this song, that I said, “you’re welcome.”

Last week, I told you about the role tax collectors played in Jewish society during the time of Jesus.  To be a tax collector was to be a Jewish person who sold out and worked for the Roman government.  Tax collectors were viewed by other Jewish people as traitors, collaborators and thieves.

And Zacchaeus was a very good tax collector.  He was, in fact, the “chief tax collector.”  Everywhere he went, people looked at him with hatred and mistrust.  The Romans didn’t trust him because he was Jewish.  His fellow Jews hated him because he worked for the Romans.

He was, quite literally, a man without a people.

Then came this incident where Zacchaeus encountered Jesus.  I imagine that he heard someone shout “Jesus of Nazareth is here in Jericho!”

Zacchaeus wanted to see this Jesus.  So much so that he ran ahead to a spot where he knew he could get a good view.  But even then, it was a struggle because of the crowds and because Zacchaeus was short.  And so, he climbed a tree to get a better view.

Why was this man so motivated to see Jesus?  I have no idea.  We can only speculate:

  • Maybe Zacchaeus looked in the mirror that morning and decided he didn’t like what he saw
  • Maybe he is tired of being excluded from the community of his own people
  • Perhaps he feels some guilt because of his actions
  • Maybe he was finally so tired of the inner conflict between what he knows is “right,” and what he is actually doing, that he couldn’t stand the inner pain it caused.

I believe that Zacchaeus was longing for something different, something more.  He probably never talked about it, but he had to know that making a living wasn’t the same thing as making a life.  And so, he climbed that tree, in search of a life.

And to his shock…to everyone’s shock, when Jesus passed by, he stopped…he stared up at the little man in the tree…and then the Messiah smiled, and said “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down…for I must stay at your house today.”

There is a lot to this story…there are multiple themes and ideas woven together into what has become a classic.  It is a story of redemption, a story of acceptance and a story of change.  But when I read and studied this story this week, one idea kept coming back to me:

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of vision; it is a story of sight.

First, Zacchaeus saw something within himself that was missing.  He looked inside of himself and realized that something was wrong.  He lacked meaning…he lacked purpose.  Maybe he’d just realized it that morning…or maybe he’d lived with that knowledge for a long time; we don’t know.  But we do know that on that particular day, seeing Jesus triggered something in Zacchaeus.

I’ve experienced that.  Have you?  That inner sense that something is missing?  That there is an emptiness in your heart that you cannot fill on your own?

Second, we know that Zacchaeus saw something in Jesus.  Zacchaeus had never seen Jesus before…he’d never met him, but somehow, he just knew that whatever this “emptiness” within himself was, Jesus would be able to fill it.  That was why he ran to see Jesus, and why he climbed that tree.

Lastly, and I think, most importantly, Jesus saw Zacchaeus.  He really saw him. And I think that the point of Jesus calling him out by name was to let Zacchaeus know that the Messiah saw him…knew him…and ultimately, Jesus wanted him to know that what Zacchaeus needed, Jesus had.

To not feel seen is a common experience.  People tell me about feeling unseen…unimportant…overlooked…all the time.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine not too long ago, an ELCA pastor who serves in Philadelphia.  She is a woman of African American descent.  She talked about when she moved into the community where she served and how hard it was to be new in a place where the people were so different from her.  “It was like they didn’t know what to say to me, so they kind of looked past me,” she said.  “People weren’t mean, but they also weren’t kind.”  She said she felt unseen.

Her comments make me wonder who I don’t see.  Who do I look past?  And I fear what kind of harm might I unintentionally cause.  But Jesus reminds us here of the importance, and the impact of seeing people, and even more, for seeing them for who they are:  children of God.

Two years after Lori and I were married, we were both working in youth ministry in different congregations.  Together, we went to a youth ministry conference that was being held in Las Vegas.  (Yes, I said Vegas.)  There were a bunch of us from the Twin Cities who were all flying together on a late-night flight.  We landed there around midnight.    Because of the travel schedule, we hadn’t eaten yet.  So, after we checked in to the hotel, probably around 1am…four of us decided to go to the hotel restaurant for dinner.  It was, of course, a buffet.

Dr. Rollie Martinson, a professor at Luther Seminary was in our group.  The restaurant server came over to us, pulled out a small notepad and a pen and said kind of mechanically, without making any eye-contact, “Hello.  My name is Jamie.  I’ll be taking care of you tonight.  What can I get you to drink?”  It was clear that Jamie, working the graveyard shift at a Vegas hotel buffet, was kind of going through the motions.

We ordered our beverages, and as Jamie was turning to leave, Rollie, the seminary professor, asked “Jamie, I’m just curious.  Are you originally from Las Vegas?”  She was clearly startled, actually, we all were, and she turned back to us, maybe just a little bit suspisciously.  “No, I moved here.”  “Where did you move from?”  Rollie asked.  “I grew up in New Jersey.”  “How long have you been here?” Rollie went on.  “About a year and a half I guess.” She said, now thoroughly confused.

But Rollie didn’t stop there: “So, I’m curious, what makes a young woman move by herself to Las Vegas?” And Jamie told us about how her friends had all graduated and moved away, and how her parents were putting a lot of pressure on her to go to school, but she didn’t know if she wanted to, and so she just needed to get out.  And Rollie continued to ask questions.  The two of them about a 10-minute conversation, at 1am in the hotel buffet.

After we had eaten, and after Jamie had run our credit cards, Rollie said “It was good to meet you, Jamie.”  And she turned and said “Thanks.  You too.  I’ve never had people ask me questions before.”  And she smiled, and then turned away.

Now, I was aware of the restaurant server when we sat down and she came over.  But Rollie noticed her.  Rollie saw her and saw her for who she was; a child of God…a person of dignity, a story worth hearing, a person worth getting to know…even just for a moment.

When the crowd second-guessed Jesus, shocked (and probably more than a little bit jealous) that Jesus would select the chief tax-collector’s home to stay in, Jesus said…out loud…for all to hear:  ““Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  In other words…”don’t judge…this man may have been wandering lost, but he’s still in the family, and I see him.  He receives the same gift of salvation as you do.”

What would it be like if we did what Jesus did.  What if we made an effort to not just be aware of people, but to see them…really see them.  Here’s what I’d like you to try this week:  when you’re at a restaurant, pull a Rollie, and ask your server a question.  When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store, look at the cashier’s nametag, greet them by name, and notice the person.  When you’re at the football game, talk with the people sitting around you.  Just like Zacchaeus, there are people in the world who deeply need to be seen.  And when they know that they are seen, they are reminded that their stories and lives have value, and that they are beloved children of God.  Try it this week.  And pay attention to what it does to their heart, and to yours.

As people of faith, we see people because we know that Jesus first sees us.  We are not that different than Zacchaeus.  We too have gaps…spaces in our hearts that only Jesus can fill.  Jesus looks into your heart and knows everything there is about you.  And Jesus loves you…enough to go to bring you the gift of healing and wholeness… enough to bring you the gift of forgiveness…enough to bring you the gift of salvation.  Jesus calls you by name and says: “I see you…you are a part of the family…and the gift of salvation is for you…come down from your tree…I am coming to your house tonight.”

Thanks be to God!
Amen.