I’ve helped with a church group for adults with severe learning disabilities for about a year now, and it’s honestly been one of the things that has the biggest impact on my faith. It’s true – I’ve heard some brilliant sermons and sang some heartfelt songs, I’ve listened to famous preachers and read books by some of the leading Theologians of the last century, but spending time with people who need to take the Bible at a bit of a slower pace than I do, is the thing that has taught me the most, both by looking at the more experienced leaders build a loving community that churches speak of often, but rarely attain, and also by having to pare back my thinking when I’m given the responsibility of leading a meeting.
I imagine that there are some similarities to teaching sunday school in that there’s a focus on parables and stories, and less of an emphasis on Bible history or theory – but it’s also different, as our members are adults with adult problems, although they don’t have the same capacity to understand or manage, as others do. They have problems with people jeering, being unkind, and taking advantage. They have worries about their loved ones health, and often have a lot of medical problems themselves. They get stressed when their carers change frequently and don’t seem to know them. They struggle in their workplaces when they feel overwhelmed and sometimes undervalued. This is why the group is so wonderful – it truly values each person and actively loves them. It’s ‘church’ at its best. Although, when I hear about some of the stuff they have to put up with, it makes my blood boil and I don’t always remember to have a very Christian attitude towards some of the people who quite literally persecute them. People can be cruel.
I’ve been invited to speak at one of the other groups, that I am not directly involved with, on Thursday. I’m a bit nervous – no matter how many times someone says ‘but ANYONE can preach the gospel!’, I’m still a bit unsure – can I do it? Or more importantly, can I do it well, accurately, lovingly, confidently? I don’t know this group so pitching the right level is a bit trickier than when I talk with my own, whom I know. As I’ve been preparing it’s made me think about how much you can learn from really taking something back to baseline. I’ve been asked to talk about Zaccheus (Luke 19) and fascinating as it was reading about the symbolism of the sycamore tree, my eyes have been opened by having to look at how I can strip the story back and make it accessible.
Zaccheus is often a bit of a figure of fun – he’s a little, seething, greedy man. Sing the song – you know you want to. You don’t have to go far these days to see or hear the ire directed at bankers and their bonuses – and this is how the people of the day would have seen Zach – beyond reproach, with no thought for anything except the money lining their pockets. And when Jesus picks Zach, out of everyone from the crowds, their response is telling – why is he being favoured, when he is so hated, so very flawed? Why am I not being given that honour, when I tithe what I should and give money freely….. The crowds put themselves above Zaccheus, they get prideful and think that even if they’re a sinner, he’s more of one. He doesn’t deserve Jesus. They’re indignant. They question Jesus’ choice. Even though Zaccheus shows up to see Jesus just as much as they do, and has gone to the effort of shinning up a tree (and I don’t imagine he was all that graceful a climber), they don’t think he’s worthy. He should be made to wait his turn, and when the grace runs dry, miss out and go home empty handed.
More importantly is Zaccheus’ response. He seeks Jesus, meets Jesus, and is driven to change. He suddenly goes all Robin Hood on Jerusalem and gives back what he’s taken and repays the interest four times over. The Holy Spirit changes the biggest obstacle Zaccheus has, that keeps him from living a holy life – and Zaccheus steps up and delivers, in front of the masses. Could you do that? Could you publicly admit the places where you go most wrong, and in the open, put it to rights? Zaccheus gets bravery from following Jesus. This must have been a total high-five moment.
Having to teach on Zaccheus reminded me that anyone who is open to Jesus, deserves Jesus. It reminded me that I need to pray more for people I don’t see eye to eye with, and that sometimes, it’s easy to start marking ourselves up against another person’s flaws and find them wanting. It reminded me that even though it doesn’t always seem that way, the Spirit is working in me to change the parts of me that aren’t, as my church would say, ‘worthy of the kingdom’. I may not be an overt usurer, but I’m certainly not perfect. Whether you’re identifying with Zaccheus, given an honour he doesn’t deserve, or the crowds, we all need Jesus.
Zaccheus is a good example for modern life, I think – when we think of ‘sinners’, the things that come to mind immediately are people committing violent crimes, extortion, prostitution, theft, the list goes on – not the wealthy worker, quietly building up their savings by taking advantage in a fashion that’s not really illegal – but does harm, nonetheless, even if constitutionally, it’s ok. Grey-area, middle-class sinning is still sinning, and realistically, it’s this sort of sin that most of us are much more susceptible to. What if we started being Robin Hoods with our finances, time, and resources? What if we started giving back into the situations we’ve maybe used for our own ends? What if we started owning up and making amends? Scary? You bet.
Are you brave enough to do a Zaccheus?