There was a study done at Harvard in the late 90’s. Subjects are shown a video of six people in white and black shirts passing balls between them. The subjects are told to count how many times a ball is passed between people in white shirts. Many get the number correct which is 15. Where the study gets interesting is that 50% of the subjects fail to notice a grown person in a gorilla suit walk through the center of the action, stop, pound their chest and exit, having spent a full 9 seconds on the film. 50 % of the people didn’t notice. They weren’t told to look for it, and so they failed to register it. However, when asked if they would have noticed such a sight, over 90% responded, of course I would have seen the gorilla. How could I miss a gorilla?!
The study’s conclusion is simple yet profound, we rarely see what we aren’t looking for. Motorcycle riders live with the fear of that reality every day. Anyone who has looked for their keys knows it too. But what about Christians? What does this problem of perception mean for us?
Sometimes, when I read scripture, I wonder how so many faithful Jews 2000 years ago could have missed the messiah standing right in front of them. Were they dense, faithless, ignorant? And then I remember the second coming would probably be totally lost on me. I think I know what I am looking for. I’m busy searching the crowd for a faithful articulate preacher. But what if he came in our midst today as a Guatemalan Indian, or a poor kid from Wickham Court, or dare I say, as a woman? Stranger thing have happened!
We rarely see what we aren’t looking for.
National Public Radio regularly airs an essay project called “This I Believe.” In it people share the core values that guide their daily lives. I love the naked honesty people bring their stories as well as the truth that the project points to: everyone believes in something. There is no such thing, ultimately, in non-belief.
Whenever I hear an essay read, I often think about what I would share, were I to be invited to submit one.
So today, atleast, I would say something like:
I believe that every time we experience goodness, grace and love we are shown a portion of the risen Christ.
I believe he shows himself to us, daily, as a simple offering of sustenance for our souls. I believe he works through nature, industry, work and rest. I don’t believe he is waiting to reveal himself sometime in the future with some spectacular show of fire, earthquakes and destruction. It isn’t his style. Just as his miracles happen in our everyday, so too do his appearances. I believe he uses every means possible: music, prayer, food, friendship. And no matter how many times we fail to recognize him, he doesn’t lose hope. It is only we, with excuses of busyness and inattention who lose out.
One of the reasons this morning’s gospel is so compelling is we are witnessing one such encounter with the risen Christ. Zaccheus, a man who had long been faithful to his god of power, wealth and injustice undergoes a conversion. For some reason, this day he is moved to look for that which he has never seen before. And so he literally and figuratively changes his perspective.
In mid-eastern culture it is shameful for a grown man to run. It shows a lack of restraint. And it is unheard of for a man to climb a tree, let alone an influential and wealthy man like Zaccheus. But here he is, running and scurrying up a tree. And it is up in that sycamore tree that his entire life is changed. His eyes are opened. Borea… is the Greek word used in scripture, meaning “to see” and it has two meanings. It has the literal meaning of seeing, like seeing a gorilla standing in the midst of a ball game. But borea also means “to understand” as in comprehend. So Zaccheaus saw God, and he understood.
I believe everyone can see the face of Christ.
You don’t need a Masters in New Testament or theology. God has no more reserved seats at his heavenly banquet for armchair theologians than he has for those who know God because of a Johnny Cash song and a loving mamma. The challenge does not lie in intellect or learning. It is found in time and attention. Time and attention. As Habukkak says “there is a vision for the appointed time, if it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.” It can come at any time. It is when we offer our time and attention that we will see that which we were not looking for.
Two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a classmate of my sister’s classmate, Cary Brady, who fought off cancer for years. Cary’s was a life lived in brilliant, neon color and cut short much too soon.
There were many tears.
At one point in the funeral, the priest read a portion of a letter that Cary’s husband, Todd, wrote. It was beautiful. And it reminded me of Zaccheaus dangling in the branches of the sycamore tree. He wrote: “Cary, all this time you weree sick we were praying for a miracle. Only to find that the miracle was there all along. The miracle was you.”
I believe that this world is covered in sycamore trees.
Big tall, strong leaf ones placed squarely in our paths for us to climb and to gain a new perspective: a vision of the face of the risen Christ. Our trees grow in different shapes, some in the shape of an AA group, a service project or a different career path or perhaps you are now sitting beneath the canopy of your sycamore this very minute. Whatever that sycamore is, climb it and be ready to see that which you didn’t know you were looking for.
I believe that God is never far away from us, no matter how tired or numb or unsure we feel.
I believe that God is here, in our everyday, to be found in the crowd of demands and distractions.
I believe that when we are well perched in our sycamore trees with our eyes wide open, his beautiful face will be as obvious to us as a big hairy gorilla pounding his chest in the midst of an everyday moment, whether it be in the carpool line, a hospital room, or deep in the liner notes of a fabulous old hymn.
Thanks be to God.