The Gospel of Luke tells us that a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, heard Jesus was coming. He wanted to see Jesus but was unable to do so because he was “short in stature” and couldn’t see over the people surrounding Jesus. I can relate to that because I’m about 5’4”. I’m afraid of heights, though, so I haven’t tried climbing into a tree to see someone – but I can relate to the experience of being unable to see Jesus because of a crowd.
Most people that know me know that I grew up Roman Catholic. Most people that know me also know that I’m gay. At age 13, I knew I was different from other boys, and I also knew that there would be problems. My classmates made fun of me. My teachers didn’t know how to support me. The words of priests and bishops all sent me the same message over and over again: I needed to change my identity in order to be part of community. It was something I couldn’t do. This is the experience of countless people who grow up, not just in the Roman Catholic Church, but in all kinds of Christian communities. The church often plays the part of the crowd in this Gospel story; we surround the Savior and make it hard for other people – especially those on the margins – to see or touch Jesus. We are gatekeepers to Christ, rather than emissaries. We see churches do this explicitly, with policies that prevent women or LGBTQ people from taking roles in ministry, or more subtly, when the church marginalizes people for having certain stances on social issues.
In this story, Zacchaeus really wants to see Jesus, so he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up a tree to get a better look. He did what he had to do to have the most important meeting of his life. I don’t climb trees, but I love God – and the folks in my life that crowded around Jesus made it hard for me to connect with God. I decided I needed to leave the church. I explored a lot of different religions and spiritual traditions, and they all had something to teach me about God. But ultimately, none of them felt like home.
Back to our story: Here is Zacchaeus up in this tree, and Jesus walks by: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
In a similar way, Jesus sought me. I resisted for a while. When I mentioned to people that I used to be a Christian, they would ask me if I still valued or respected Jesus in any way, and I would tell them, “Well, Jesus was a good teacher, and I take inspiration from his words and life,” but I always stopped short of acknowledging him as divine. By then I had also become aware there were many books in print that made the case for LGBTQ inclusion in the church, but I hadn’t read any of them. “All of that is nice,” I thought, “but not for me.”
I liked keeping Jesus at arm’s length, I think, because I was still afraid of the people surrounding Jesus.
Secretly, though, I wanted to re-kindle my relationship with Christ. I would sometimes go off to Eucharist at an Episcopal church, and I was never entirely certain why, but I liked being there, even though I kept saying, “Not for me.” I knew deep down that if I wanted to do this whole Christianity thing again, it would mean that I would have to become part of the church, and I couldn’t do that.
This last February, deep into my last semester of undergraduate work, I was experiencing doubt, really questioning what I had come to believe. Everything seemed so empty. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. And then, for some reason, I felt like reading the gospels for the first time in years – I opened to the story in John where Jesus appears to the disciples during a storm. My own life felt very dark and stormy, and I could feel what the disciples felt in that moment – afraid and uncertain. But then the Lord appears to them and says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” It was a message for me. And I thought that maybe I should give Jesus another chance.
My perspective of Jesus has changed from the time I was outside the church. I made a lot of friends who were both gay and Christian and who demonstrated to me that it is possible to be a happy gay man (no pun intended) and a devout Christian. The Jesus that they knew and loved was not unlike the Jesus that I grew up with: a Jesus that invites everyone into God’s Kingdom, a Jesus that heals the sick and feeds the hungry, a Jesus that loves people.
I’m not saying you should leave the church in order to understand Jesus better. What I’m saying is that we’re not called to surround Jesus. This just keeps other people away. So let’s start looking up in trees and keeping an eye on the side of the road, where those the world forgets are waiting for Jesus. And when we find them, let’s offer them seats of honor. God invites us all to the banquet. Let’s go in and celebrate. Together.