A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
Kenny Smith could have been a teacher, a preacher, or a politician when he grew up. Last week on the phone, he said, somewhat ruefully, “Wouldn’t you know I’d choose the worst of the three…” He’s a city council member in Charlotte, North Carolina; a white conservative representing a majority-white, mostly, prosperous district in a city that recently joined the ranks of those communities rocked by racial unrest after the shooting death of a Black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by a police officer. Not long after the shooting and the street protests and violence that followed, the Charlotte City Council met to discuss a way forward. The council chamber was full to overflowing, mostly with angry citizens demanding justice for the Black community. Kenny was a target of much of their anger as people demanded answers and vented their frustration. According to a news report Kenny’s family had been threatened. He was a despised government official.
As the meeting approached its end without resolution and with tempers and anxiety still running high, Mayor Jennifer Roberts and the council were advised to leave by a side door. But Kenny stopped and looked again at the angry crowd. Even as his wife, at home and watching the meeting on t.v., texted him to lay low and play it safe, he rose from his chair to speak.
Had Zacchaeus been in that city council chamber he might have known what Kenny was going through. He knew what it was to be despised. He too was a government official; a tax collector for an occupying authority who made his money, and plenty of it, by cheating people. That’s the way it worked; as long as the Romans got their cut, anything else the tax collectors could squeeze out of people was theirs. That’s why Luke regularly refers to tax collectors and sinners in the same breath.
We don’t know what prompted Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus. It may have been simple curiosity; he knew the Teacher was coming to town and he wanted to see what the fuss was about. Or it could have been something deeper. Perhaps he knew his own need for healing; he surely knew that his stature in his community was as minuscule as his own physical height. But whatever prompted his interest, he was energetic in his pursuit of Jesus; he ran ahead of the crowd. He climbed a tree to see over the heads of the others. And Jesus saw him in the tree and beckoned to him. By name.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Let’s rest for a moment in this liminal millisecond between Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus and the tax collector’ scramble down to the ground. In the space between the tree where he perched and Jesus was a crowd of people who hated Zacchaeus. He represented the Roman occupation. He had stolen from these people. The wealth that he had—that he wore in his nice clothes, that he displayed in his comfortable home, and possibly extra land and livestock— Zacchaeus had effectively taken all of this from the mouths of his neighbors and their children. Imagine looking down at these people as they stare angrily back at you, grumbling in wonder that Jesus had chosen to honor you with his presence at dinner, and not one of them.
It looks like a pretty hostile gauntlet to run, doesn’t it?
What happened inside of Zacchaeus’ heart in that liminal millisecond? Did he look into the eyes of Jesus and see God’s mercy? Did his soul break open to reveal a well of gratitude for God’s abundant love and compassion—God’s ‘tender competence’, as we have heard it called? Whatever it was, it was strong and compelling, and it was enough to propel Zacchaeus down from that sycamore, sending pieces of bark flying hither and thither, straight. through that hostile crowd to stand breathlessly before his Lord. He had figuratively leapt into the arms of God, somehow knowing he would be caught and held safely and securely.
And his grateful response was to give. To give half of his wealth and to repay fourfold what he had taken from his community. And Jesus’ response in turn to the questioning crowd was that Zacchaeus, one of the lost, had now been found.
Kenny Smith wasn’t in a sycamore tree in 1st century Jericho, but he might as well have been on that recent Monday night in Charlotte. He sat on a dais behind a table in the council chamber; looking at a crowd of people who projected upon him all of their feelings of years of neglect and injustice toward their community. And when he looked back, in that liminal millisecond after the council was told to leave by a side door, what did he see? What happened inside of his heart?
When Kenny and I spoke about it last week, his voice was reflective. He said, “It must have been some kind of divine inspiration.” Even as his wife was frantically texting him from home not to do it, he did it anyway.
Peter St. Onge, the reporter who wrote the story for the Charlotte Observer, tells it this way:
“I heard your anger,” [Smith] said. “I have three kids. I heard your damn anger.”
Then he stood up and walked toward the crowd. As council member Vi Lyles started speaking, Smith met a black man at the first row of seats. They hugged, and Smith reached for his business card. Then he did it again, a couple steps higher.
He found some who had singled him out earlier. He told them what he had tried to say on the dais, that he’s a conservative from a part of town where people are angry at the demonstrators, but that those constituents and those demonstrators need each other if we want repair.
“I told them we needed to talk,” he says now.
It’s a simple thought, maybe a little quaint. It’s also true.
…Maybe this was a political maneuver, you think, a way for a Republican to look better in a Democrat-heavy city. …But no matter what you think, you should also see this: That moment you most want to retreat to safety might be the moment you most need to reach out.
Because without that, no one will reach back.
Kenny Smith was up against it. He had a choice. He could retreat into safety or take the risk of leaping forward into the unknown. He realized, in that liminal millisecond, that safety was the dead end, while taking the risk—the leap—admitted of the opportunity for the arc of history to bend just a hair closer toward justice and reconciliation. He says he didn’t have a clue how it would turn out. He was terrified. His family had been threatened—his wife was panicking—but somehow deep down he knew that he could depend on God’s sustaining mercy—God’s tender competence. And in that millisecond he was transformed from a despised politician into a catalyst for healing.
And so, he leaped.
And his neighbor caught him by the hand. And another, and another. And this tentative group of former adversaries continues to hold on to one another to this day; meeting for coffee, lunch, conversation. There is still so much work to do, and a great deal to learn on both sides, but they have made a beginning by first getting to know each other.
Zacchaeus’ tale isn’t as open-ended as Kenny’s. We have a distinct sense of a happy ending for the wee little tax collector: salvation has come to his house. Kenny’s story, on the other hand, and that of his community, is still to reach its final chapter, and it is probably quite a ways down the road. We so yearn for a happy ending here, and what we have heard so far—this story of humility and courage, and the generosity born of a heart broken open by the Spirit, gives us hope.
Kenny’s story could easily be ours—the facts and names may change, but perhaps we can identify a time when that liminal millisecond has been all that stood between facing a fearful dead end or accepting an invitation to open our heart to God’s grace and abundance. We look out and see every reason in the world to cling to the status quo arrayed against us, glaring angrily and pronouncing our inadequacy for the task ahead. And then by the sheer grace of God we see beyond that to the truth of belovedness that challenges all of that anxiety; we see through to the healing and wholeness that comes from welcoming God’s tender mercy, offered to each of us by name.
And we take the leap.