Sunday, October 31, 2010

Homily: The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [October 31, 2010]

Everybody has a pet peeve. Some people can’t stand waiting in line. Others are driven crazy by those unopenable plastic packages that electronic gadgets come wrapped in. Lines and hard plastic packages do annoy me, as do people writing checks for one item at the drug store and folks with extremely complicated drink orders at Starbucks. I mean, a half-caff no foam decaf percent vanilla cream latte? Please, people! It’s just a cup of coffee! Nevertheless, I do nurse one particular pet peeve, and it is one I have pretty much to myself: Daylight Savings Time.

I hate Daylight Savings Time. Chances are, you will agree with my wife, Kathy (who greets the arrival of daylight savings time in spring with joyous observations that it’s 8 o’clock and still light out) that this is a weird pet peeve for a rational adult person to have. Whenever we turn our clocks ahead, I stomp around muttering, “The government just took an hour of my life!” She and the dogs cower in the corner until the spring clock-setting ritual is done. So you can see, Daylight Savings Time drives me crazy. It drove me crazy BEFORE I moved to Michigan to find it still dark outside at 8 a.m. in October. It drives me crazy NOW living in Michigan because in summer here it’s like living in Iceland—it’s 9:30 at night and the sun is still out. As an early to bed and early to rise kind of guy, I want it to be dark when I lie down and light when I get up. Is that too much to ask?

Luckily, for us Daylight Savings Time resisters there is good news on the horizon: the best night of the year is on its way. On Saturday night November 6, next weekend, the government will give us back the hour of our lives they took from us last spring. When we turn our clocks back we will have restored the cosmic balance the universe so desperately craves. Sure, it will turn to night somewhere around noon, but it will actually be light when we’re on our way to work and school. For a few brief shining months we will all live together in the shared Camelot of Eastern Standard Time. If you notice a sharp improvement in my mood, you’ll now know why. And this is all a fancy way of saying: be sure to turn your clocks back one hour before coming to church next Sunday.

One of the ways I’ve been using the long, light nights these days has been to read a book published last year on neuroscience. (How’s that for an artful segue?) The book, by Iain McGilchrist, is The Master and His Emissary. McGilchrist is a brain scientist, a physician, and a professor of literature at Oxford, and his book examines the split between our two brain hemispheres . His theory is that the increasing dominance of the left brain has given us a culture that more and more sees the world as something to be manipulated rather than something to be experienced. For McGilchrist, the left and right sides of the brain construct different versions of our world: the left hemisphere “has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world" and so treats the world as a machine; the right hemispherehas no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be." [BBC Radio 4 Today December, 2009 interview] If the left hemisphere construes the world as a machine, the right takes it in as a living, organic whole.

McGilchrist’s larger point is that the left hemisphere (the emissary) has usurped or displaced the right hemisphere (the master) in our culture and given us a shared version of the world that values science over religion, facts over intuition, and things over processes—the “what” more than the “how”. As he says, “the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human.” This book is a hard read (especially for someone who hasn’t taken a science class since 1966), but it’s worth it. I want, though, to focus on one observation he makes fairly early on:

The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to . . .Attention changes what kind of thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world.

He uses the example of a mountain:

. . . A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking that reveals the true mountain. [Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, p. 28]

Now for me the current work on brain science and attention are so important because I believe our difficulty with paying attention lies at the root of many of our social and spiritual problems; and these problems are central to understanding this morning’s Gospel, the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus climbing the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. Because Zacchaeus is short, we’ve tended to make this one of the “cute” incidents in the New Testament.

I’m sure many of you know the song that calls Zacchaeus a “wee little man”. He may have been a wee little man, but he was also a thug—a tax collector, one who enforced the collection of oppressive taxes by the Romans and who got rich himself in the process. When Jesus accepts Zacchaeus’s invitation to come dine at his house, in our terms it would be like his going to the home of Tony Soprano. So we should not sentimentalize Zacchaeus: he’s a gangster, and his conversion from that life to one in which he can say “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” [Luke 19.8]—is a mark of a radical and life-changing repentance.

So it is a wonderful story about new life, about grace, conversion, repentance, forgiveness. Jesus accepts the invitation to be the guest of a sinner, and in making that connection the sinner is changed to become someone righteous. How does that work?

Again, getting back to this question of paying attention: if you recall the story (or the song), you will remember that Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he wanted to get a view of Jesus. This picture of Zacchaeus in the tree connects with another image from today’s readings, the picture of Habakkuk in the watchtower:

I will stand at my watchpost,

and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,

and what he will answer concerning my complaint. [Habakkuk 2.1]

In both Bible accounts we witness a person climbing up high to prepare themselves to receive a message. The prophet Habakkuk ascends the tower to be ready to hear what God will say in answer to his complaint. Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to get a better view of Jesus. In both instances, each person receives a message or a greeting because they have prepared themselves for it. They have gone up, or apart, to make themselves ready and open for what God will do. In Zacchaeus’s case, Jesus addresses him directly: "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." [Luke 19. 5] In Habakkuk’s, after lamenting the destruction that is coming to his people, the prophet becomes open to one of the most beautiful and assuring oracles in all of scripture:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

it will surely come, it will not delay.

Look at the proud!

Their spirit is not right in them,

but the righteous live by their faith. [Habakkuk 2.3-4]

For Zacchaeus, the message is that God can love and bless and accept and transform even the most egregious sinner you can imagine. For Habakkuk, the message is that even though hard times are coming, the righteous will make it through as they live by their faith. In both stories, we have a life-transforming message of hope, and it’s given to someone who has made themselves ready to receive it.

As we move into this darkening time of the year, I believe there is a message of hope and blessing for each one of us in these accounts of a watchtower-climbing prophet and a tree-climbing tax collector, and that message of hope and blessing assumes our willingness to make ourselves ready to hear it. God does want to love, bless, heal, and forgive you. God does want to assure you that, in spite of all the changes and challenges and losses and struggles you may be enduring, all will in fact be well. That message of hope and blessing and assurance is the main thing that God wants you and me to take into ourselves and live from. But the hard truth this morning is that we cannot hear that message unless, like Zacchaeus and Habakkuk, we cooperate with it. Only very rarely in the Bible does God get people’s attention through a miraculous or dramatic act. It is more typically true that God speaks to people who have learned to pay attention, to prepare themselves for God’s presence, to open themselves up to the wonder and depth of God’s love for them and the world.

In the words of the brain scientist, “The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to.” What kind of attention are you bringing to bear on the world? What, for you, would be the equivalent of climbing a watchtower or a tree? God appeared to people in Bible times not because they were better than we are. God appeared to them because they lived in greater balance between the left and right sides of their brains—they lived in a culture that valued reflection as much as action, art and religion as much as practical know-how. They were able to open themselves to God because they didn’t always live out of their controlling left brains. So how can you become more like them? How, on a daily basis, do you find time to step out of all those left brain activities of management and control we all spend so much time at and open yourself to the world using the right side of your brain? How can you spend some time each day in openness and receptivity instead of command and control? What is your way of opening yourself up to creation: a walk in the woods, a trip to a museum, playing with a child, listening to music, reading a poem? The list is endless because our uniqueness and diversity are endless. The point is: God is looking for you. But it will be all that much harder for God to find you if you yourself don’t ascend the tower or climb the tree.

Zacchaeus did climb that tree what he saw there compelled him to and welcome Jesus into his house. Habakkuk climbed the watchtower and heard there a promise of divine deliverance. As we move into these darker and richer nights of the year, how will you begin to make ready a place for God to come and do something good in you? We come now to the Eucharist, the meal in which each one of us is asked to come forward and let God and each other in. That’s as good a place as I know of to start the surprising and gracious process of paying attention to the world, each other, ourselves, and God. Amen.

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