On the morning of the day he is reborn, the tax collector, Zacchaeus, is what he has always been: fraudulent; wormy; short of stature, both physically and in the eyes of those he exploits; and very, very rich. On that morning, before his encounter with Jesus turns him inside out, Zacchaeus does not entertain the possibility that by the time the sun sets, he will be a changed man, a good man—and yet still a rich man. He does not yet have the largeness of heart to understand that God is not an angry father with a belt in his hand, but a shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one wayward lamb—to retrieve even the shamelessly rich. He can not conceive of a God who wants him to be happy and free, not locked up in the only life he knows—the wrong one—because it’s all he knows. Zacchaeus does not know that a man can be loved into repentance until it happens to him.
More than most characters in the gospels, Zacchaeus illuminates for me who we are as a parish here at St. James’s. No, not because we’re all a bunch of rich crooks. Not because we’re shamelessly rich and can now find comfort knowing that we, too, can pass through the eye of a needle. No, it’s more subtle than that. Let me explain.
Time and time again, Randy, Torrence and I, as well as Mark and Virginia and the rest of the church staff, hear that our parish is too ” West End .” I perceive this to mean that we are seen as a wealthy congregation, that our children attend only private schools, that we have a disproportionate number of members who hail from the First Families of Virginia, and in turn belong to the Country Club of Virginia, that our members tend to be political conservatives and live westward beyond the Fan – out of the range of people of color. We hear this stereotype not only from outsiders, but from our own parishioners – and from parishioners who have decided to transfer their memberships to churches on the northside and southside that are not so socially prominent and not – so – perfect looking.
Of course we have members whose lives reflect all that I just described. But as we all know, the body of St. James’s is much more diverse than what is represented by the West End . A majority of our families live right here in the Fan; but they also live in Church Hill, on the northside, far out in Goochland and way out in Chesterfield County. We have parishioners who live in Hopewell and Petersburg and never miss a Sunday. We have parishioners who own Ukrop’s, whose families founded the grocery store, and we have parishioners who work on their feet all day long as cashiers at Ukrop’s. We have parishioners who own and sell real estate like they’re playing the game Monopoly and we have parishioners who are their tenants and are barely able to afford their rent. Our parishioners are all over the theological and political map. The consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson is a case in point. And if you stroll through the St. James’s parking garage, you’ll see equal numbers of Kerry/Edwards and Bush/Cheney bumper stickers.
What I think throws people is that in general, the people at St. James’s – especially on Sunday mornings – have a certain look that conveys privilege. The children are beautiful and dressed in matching smocked outfits. The women are dressed in the latest fashions; the men are handsome and smartly attired. And so on. You know what I mean. We’re not a body of Christ that looks rough around the edges, and for some people that is a turn off. To those who criticize St. James’s, I say yes, I do think our church would better represent the city of Richmond if we had more people of color in our pews.
And yet these critics – and even many of our parishioners -don’t know what we clergy know, pastorally and confidentially: that we are a body of Christ that is very rough around the edges. Some of these smart-looking people you see around you are falling apart at the seams. Their lives are not as they appear. In the privileged positions in which Randy, Torrence and I sit, we know the back stories. I don’t mean what people are trying to hide, but what their struggles are, what they don’t wear advertised on their foreheads. The financial difficulties, the alcoholism, the mental illness, the marital problems, the physical and emotional abuse, the struggles with their children as they relate to drug use, suicide, and poor performance. I could go on and on. Some of these life struggles are routine and some are devastating. As the story of Zacchaeus tells us, our role is to love them into health and repentance, to counsel them, and to point the way towards God’s truth. In this parish we are called to minister to the F.F.V’s and the disenfranchised alike. We don’t discriminate.
Another issue that needs to be addressed as it relates to this ” West End ” label relates directly to the clergy. The charge against us is that we are too comfortable with the status quo; that as an urban parish we’re not on the cutting edge of ministry in Richmond and in our mission fields, that we are not taking risks outside of ourselves. Meaning that, unlike Zacchaeus, we are not going out on a limb to be more progressive, to attract more people of color, to keep fighting the racial tensions in this city. It means we should be more vocal and opinionated about issues confronting church and society. This refers to taking risks with our liturgy, our preaching, our programs. There is truth in this assessment. I’m not going to say that we can do more, because we can’t possibly work any harder. But we can make different decisions about what constitutes our work. No doubt about it.
Your rector recently changed my job description so that I could focus on a daily basis on the needs of the working poor, of women and children, and of people on the verge of homelessness. In late April we will be the only Episcopal Church in town taking part in Habitat for Humanity’s first ever interfaith build with our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Black Baptist friends. Chris Edwards , our youth minister, is working now to take a team of young people to Alaska next summer to build churches and teach Bible school to the natives in villages so small and remote there are no roads in or out of their communities.
St. James’s is a vibrant, healthy parish. There are no skeletons in our closet we try to keep hidden or any that prevent us from doing God’s work out in the world. Can we do more to force ourselves to look beyond our comfort zones? Absolutely. Should we concentrate more on feeding the world than feeding our own minds? Sure. Are some of us resistant to change? Absolutely. Do we clergy fall prey to that? Absolutely. Because we are such a big church, with its bureaucratic tendencies, it is often harder to move off center, to think creatively and differently. And when we do pursue something not traditional rather than crumble under the weight of raised eyebrows and skepticism we need to trust more in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But if you think we’re rich and that we’ve sold out, then you are wrong. We are enormously wealthy relative to the rest of the world and to a good portion of Richmonders, but this does not mean we’ve sold out. It means that we have a bigger burden to share of our neighbors’ problems. It means that we use our power and money as our reflection of our love rather than as a reflection of our station and status. It means that we start looking at one another as individuals, as reflections of Christ, rather than as meaningless, shallow stereotypes. The Spirit of God has a healthy heartbeat in this church. There are times when this is not enough and times when it is. Amen.