(Message given on June 18, 2017 at Newberg Friends Church)
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’
He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
‘Lord, I want to see,’ he replied.
Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’ (Luke 18:35-19:10, TNIV)
I noticed something in the book of Luke that I have never noticed before.
I think I can blame Stephen Langton, former archbishop of Canterbury, for me not noticing until now. Carolyn read two stories from the book of Luke earlier, the blind man by the side of the road and Zacchaeus the tax collector. The blind man comes at the end of chapter 18, and Zacchaeus comes at the beginning of chapter 19, and it’s that big chapter divider that I blame for not putting these two stories together before…and that’s why I blame Stephen Langton.
In AD 1227, Langton is the one who divided the bible into the chapter divisions we use today, to make finding things easier. So because of this archbishop who lived 800 years ago, I’ve always seen this big “19” that’s made my mind separate the blind man and Zacchaeus.
But of course when Luke was writing the gospel, he was writing one story. He was intentionally crafting together the things he knew about the life of Jesus, crafting them together in themes that make important points, as the Holy Spirit inspired the writing. And what I noticed that was new to me was the connection, the similarity between these two moments in Jesus’ life.
These two men needed Jesus so much that they broke through every social barrier to get what they needed.
They let themselves be needy, breaking decorum in order to connect with Jesus. The crowds actively try to squelch the blind man, but he just yells louder. Zacchaeus knows his limitations, knows he won’t be able to see Jesus, and he flaunts all social norms to run ahead and climb a tree to be able to see Jesus.
This bold, even desperate display of neediness is not something that is easy for us…for me.
There have been plenty of times I’ve talked about playing baseball, but one thing you don’t hear me talk very much about is my one year as a football player.
Let me rephrase that. I don’t think I can claim to be a football player. I think I should say “the year I tried to play football.”
That’s me, over there circled on the right.
It was my sophomore year in high school, and the reason I’m not in uniform here in the team picture is that I was already out for the season with an injured back. I was 5’ 9” and maaaayyyyybeeeeee 135 pounds…you know, the perfect specimen of a football build.
I had never played organized football up until this point in my life, but, you know, I’d watched it on TV so what more do you need? My best friend on the baseball team was a wide receiver, and so I joined him with the receivers, and occasionally played defensive back. Actually it’s more accurate to say everything I played was very occasional, as I was like 3rd or 4th string and rarely got in the game.
So since I never played before this year, I had a huge learning curve to figure out the terminology for the play book, where to run routes on the field, etc. All that I (sort of) figured out were the passing plays as a receiver; I didn’t know anything about the way running plays worked, the way the numbers and letters told which hole the running back ran through and stuff like that.
Here was the problem. The JV football coach was Mr. Morishita, and I’d had him for a special individual science class in 8th grade. He thought of me as a smart guy because of that experience, and that was his gigantic mistake…because I was NOT football smart.
Near the end of the first half of one of the games, he decided to put me in the game for one play. BUT–since he had this false impression of me, he didn’t just send me into the game–he decided to send in the next play to the quarterback with me.
And of course…he called a running play. The ones I didn’t even understand the terminology for.
I remember the feeling of utter panic building in my stomach. Relax, I told myself, relax: just memorize whatever he says phonetically. You can do this. He’s gonna say it, you repeat it in your head for the few seconds it takes to run out to the quarterback to tell him the play. Just relax.
The first part of our “code” for plays was either split black or split red…it told us what the formation was, what side the play was going to, right or left. So he goes, “Split Red, blah-blah-blah-bloggidy-blah”, and I start running out to the quarterback repeating it phonetically in my head while sweat is pouring down my forehead. And I’m ten yards away from the coach and he yells out, “Koskela, wait! Split black, split black.”
And it was all gone. Poof. Nothing in my head at all. No idea what to say after Split black. I got to the quarterback, and go “Split black seven H 14” or something ridiculous, and he just rolls his eyes at me and goes “That makes no sense at all” and he has to call a time out.
Coach comes out to the field, mad and totally confused why a time out got wasted. Quarterback of course rightly throws me under the bus, and Coach starts yelling, “You can’t even bring a play out to the field? Why in the world didn’t you just say you don’t know what you’re doing?”
Why indeed! Why didn’t I just say: “Not comfortable bringing the play in, coach”. There were like three of us going in at once, it would have been no problem. Why didn’t I just say, when he changed the formation: “What was the play again?” Why didn’t I just admit I was out of my league, admit I didn’t have a clue?
Because we all hate doing that!!
We’d much rather fake our way through and hope things work out…and so many times it crashes and burns like it did for me on the football field. I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of the coach and my friends by saying I didn’t want to take the play out to the field, so instead I made a much LARGER fool of myself by messing everything up for the team.
You’ve probably got stories like this by the dozen. I know I do. I remember being 25 years old and in my first week on the job as children’s pastor here. My desk was over in what we now call Barclay C, and I was sitting at the desk absolutely paralyzed. I knew there were all kinds of things to do…but I had absolutely no idea what those things were. And I didn’t ask anybody. I just sat there paralyzed so I wouldn’t look incompetent.
Ironic. Because I didn’t want to LOOK incompetent, I actually WAS incompetent.
We do this with bigger needs, too. We don’t admit our financial struggles to people who would be willing to help. We don’t admit the way substances are impeding us from doing our jobs because we don’t want people to judge us. We don’t say we need help parenting a high schooler, or help figuring out our taxes, or help trying to do the right ethical thing at work when there is pressure to do otherwise.
As with so many things that are important in our life with God, over the years I’ve discovered what is true…and then slid back away from what I know to be true.
Or maybe it’s more like there are more and more layers to acknowledging our need, to being willing to be vulnerable and ask for help. College was this huge time of learning to take off the mask of having it all together and being willing to be vulnerable about the things I didn’t know, or things I didn’t have together, or things that I needed help with. But like I said, years later there I am sitting at my desk in my first week on the job, not knowing what to do and afraid to tell anyone I needed help.
Six years after my first week as a children’s pastor, I was interviewing at Boise Friends Church for their senior pastor position, and that was one of those times where I remembered the truth of being honest about what I didn’t know. Part of what made it easy to do that, I think, was that I really wasn’t that sure I wanted to move to Boise and take on that responsibility. And I didn’t know those people at all, so the pressure of looking needy or like I didn’t have it together wasn’t that big of a deal.
In the interview, I remember answering a lot of questions with: “I don’t know. I haven’t been a senior pastor before. I’m not sure how I would handle that.” And it didn’t kill me to admit I didn’t know everything! In fact, I remember that was one of the things they told me later helped them trust me: I was willing to admit when I didn’t know something.
But of course these things cycle.
When I came back here to NFC 15 years ago as a 34 year old, it wasn’t hard to admit my needs, wasn’t hard to admit I needed help. Everybody knew it! I spent the first year with a mentor pastor. The elders did a great job helping me to learn. And then, over time, things got easier. I gained experience that gave me confidence. It got a little more difficult again to admit when I needed help, when I was overloaded, when I was needy.
One of the gifts of the difficulty of the last few years is that I have once again been so completely over my head that dependence on God has not only been needed and easy…it has been absolutely essential for survival. Like the blind beggar, the shouts of people to act respectably or pull it together don’t stop me from crying out to God.
Like Zacchaeus, I’ve had all kinds of things and people in between me and Jesus, and I have had absolutely no problem doing the equivalent of running ahead of the crowd, swallowing my pride, and climbing a tree so I could see Jesus unimpeded.
It’s made me think of the ways being in the church can add challenging layers to our natural human resistance to admitting our need. As much as we talk in the church about the fact that it is God’s grace that we rely on…we send mixed messages.
For instance, everyone in church culture seems to celebrate someone’s initial openness about their struggles or sins or failures…we celebrate how that’s led to someone accepting forgiveness from Jesus. But then we expect changed lives. We expect good lives to be the result. And this creates a strange cycle where we don’t want to admit when we aren’t acting as God intends, and where we sometimes internally take credit for when we do live well.
Last summer Michelle Akins spoke on the blind beggar, and our tendency in the church to sometimes be like the people telling him to be quiet. She said:
“Called to be the light, to be welcoming and inviting – instead there is this desire to silence the pain or the needs of others. Don’t rock the boat we shout. Be quiet, stop complaining, leave me alone. Leave us alone. Deal with your own problems. We are trying to hear Jesus, and all your racket and neediness makes it really hard for us to focus.”
We sometimes make grace doubly go away.
We don’t give ourselves or others grace for mistakes or failures, leading to hiding our need; and we give ourselves credit for living a good life, thinking we’ve earned it, making us want to try harder rather than admit our need to God.
Church culture can sometimes push us away from the very thing that opens us up to God’s grace and God’s activity in our lives: it can push us away from admitting our need.
This is why the blind beggar and Zacchaeus are such a gift to us! Any shame we might feel from boldly admitting our need is completely overcome by the transformation that comes through Jesus, through grace!
I’ve learned to go ahead and cry out…Jesus, have mercy on me! I’ve learned to make asking for help my first response rather than a last resort. I’ve learned to be bold and tell Jesus what I want.
I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that I can tell the story of the last 8 months of my life in 8 verses, nor that the story ends with Jesus giving me exactly what I said I wanted, like with the blind beggar.
But I will stand up here and say this.
God is so tangibly close, even with all the loose ends in my life. Discernment for others and prayers for others have never been so vividly clear and so obviously guided by God’s Spirit, with things outside of my own wisdom. My neediness and bold asking has opened up new ways for me to see the goodness of God!
So I commend this way of life to you! Reject the false idea that after you’ve started following Jesus, you can’t be honest about struggle or need. Push through whatever keeps you from letting down, being vulnerable, crying out in need. Push through embarrassment and inhibitions and the “what will people think?”
Climb a figurative tree to see Jesus! Cry out for mercy, no matter how much pressure you get that you should have your life together, that you should be keeping it together better.
Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost, and I’m here to give witness that this promise makes admitting my lostness completely worth it! May you find that to be true for you, too.