Sunday, November 7, 2010

Unzippered in Church

I dedicate our reading from Habakkuk this morning to Oscar Grant and his family. Mr. Grant was fatally shot in Oakland on January 1, 2009 by police officer Johannes Mehserle. He was unarmed, face down on the ground, and shot in the back. On November 5, Officer Mehserle received a sentence of 2 years, including time served. Davey D, a reporter and activist in Oakland has written extensively about this trial.

I don't have the answers. But for those of you closer to me, there is a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal on Tuesday, November 9 in Philadelphia. The Third Circuit court is determining whether Mr. Abu-Jamal is to be executed or receive life in prison. Information on the rally can be found on the Free Mumia website. Additional information about his case can be found at Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The effects of centuries of racist violence in our country are undeniably at the root of both Mr. Grant and Mr. Abu-Jamal's cases. Read the Habakkuk scripture. And then the sermon about Zacchaeus. And then let us ask ourselves, in a moment of naked honesty, what have we taken and how do we pay it back?

Here's the Habakkuk reading, and then finally the sermon below.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; 
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

Two Women with Contrasting Dress
Mennonite World Conference, 1967
Sermon, Sunday, November 7, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10

Here we are back at the gospel of Luke. Jesus had been busy with parables and healing and foretellings. The parable of the sower, the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son. The dishonest manager, Lazarus at the gates, pharisees, and rich rulers. The widow and the unjust judge. Interspersed were the miraculous healings—10 lepers, a man with dropsy, a widow unable to stand straight. And artfully woven into the story, Jesus foretold his own death and return. Just prior to meeting Zacchaeus the tax collector, Jesus spoke for the third time of his arrest, execution, and resurrection. It must have been an exciting time—full of movement and action, wandering about, following a beloved and charismatic teacher. They were so caught up that Jesus’ words of warning didn’t register. When Jesus spoke of the coming troubles, “they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (Luke 18:34)

There is something about this kind of urgency that opens us up to new possibilities—new ways of living our lives, new ways of interacting with friends, families, and strangers. The constant pressure of Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem and the fulfillment of his promises to his disciples is hard for us to imagine in our everyday lives. We get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other, going about our business like we always do. Jesus died and scurried up to heaven 2000 years ago now, and we are still waiting his promised return. But we shouldn’t forget that Jesus was feeling the crunch of time as he passed by the sycamore tree where Zaccheus was hiding. And perhaps we might keep in mind that regardless of when Christ returns, the days of our own lives are numbered; we ought to feel the pressure of that—we have this life to be who the Spirit calls us to be. None of us knows what comes next—we have this life.

Zacchaeus was a rich man—he was a chief tax collector. He made money off of collecting those taxes—and most likely he skimmed extra off the top. Tax collectors were not popular at all—probably less popular than tax collectors are in these days. This was a guy who took money from his own people and gave it to an oppressive government, and then took some extra for himself, and there was nothing you could do about it. This was a guy you avoided; he wasn’t a guy you ate with. Or socialized with. Or introduced to your other friends. 

He was a short man, and he wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a sycamore tree and waited for Jesus and his crew to pass by.  When I was in New York last summer, President Obama came through town, and his motorcade passed by the movie theater where I was sitting on some steps. I didn’t realize what was happening until a crowd formed around me. The motorcade included several vehicles—it was impossible to tell which car the president was in. But that didn’t stop us from speculating, “ooh, it must be that one.” Everyone in the crowd had a reason for why they thought this car or that car would be the one the president was in. But imagine how surprised we would have been if the motorcade had stopped and the president popped out of one of the cars. Imagine if he’d singled out someone in the crowd and said “Come on down from those steps! I’m having dinner at your place tonight.” It’s not a perfect analogy—I promise I am not saying the president is Jesus. But do you get the sense of it? The surprise, the jealousy of others in the crowd, the grumbling that might begin if the crowd sensed the person singled out was not worthy of this honor?

Zacchaeus was a smart man, and scrambled out of that tree to welcome Jesus. And as the crowd grumbled around him, Zacchaeus took Jesus home and fed him, and he made a promise to give back half of his possessions to the poor—if he had defrauded anyone he would pay it back four times over. Satisfied with this promise (and perhaps with the fine dinner we don't get to hear about), Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

What would it be like to bring Jesus home to your house this afternoon without warning? Would your loved ones appreciate the unexpected guest? Is your house in order to receive guests? Do you have time in your schedule for such an unexpected event? Or would you be more like me? With 12 loads of laundry to be done and the dishes piled up and the cats are unruly and the children tired and cranky. Would you offer Jesus carrots and ranch because that’s what is readily available in your fridge? Do you think that Jesus would demand more? Do you think that he does? Do you think that Jesus demands more from us as a church, that we be ready at all times, properly dressed, properly pressed, ready for a visit from royalty?

I was out walking yesterday around my neighborhood. I was lost in my head as I am wont to do when I am out walking. I was thinking about a blog post I needed to write, and this sermon, and a paper that is being stubborn. I was musing about how my son had a paper he needed to write, and how funny it is that our children are so much like us. I stepped off the curb, and a car pulled in front of me and stopped.

A lady dressed in black jumped out of the car, startling me. She waved and called out, “Hey! Can I ask a favor?” I couldn’t think of much to say, startled out of my daydreams and stopped short on my walk. I looked around, but she was definitely talking to me, so I nodded. She said, “Can you help me with my zipper? I hate being unzippered in church.” And then she pulled off her jacket and turned around, and sure enough her zipper was stuck about 10 inches down her back.

It was an oddly strange event to be zipping up a woman’s dress on the street. And it was an oddly strange dress to dash off to church in—gauzy and black and full of glittery sequins. It took me a minute to untangle the zipper from the fabric where it had caught, and then there was the tiny clasp at the top of the zipper, which my cold fingers had trouble with.  And I’m pretty sure I accidentally pulled off one of those sequins. But finally I had her zippered, and she jumped back in the car saying, “Thank you! One should never live alone!” And then she dashed off to church, I guess, on a Saturday afternoon.

Her words stuck with me—“I hate being unzippered in church.” And isn’t that true? We don’t much care for being exposed in church—we dress up, act appropriately. We zipper up—we don’t tell the full stories of our lives. Church is a place where we ought to be unzippered, but it’s surely one of the places where we are most tightly bound.

The lady’s words reminded me of another time when I worked at the YMCA. I was lucky enough to be able to bring my baby to work with me, and I was still nursing. I had a meeting with my boss and the other associate exec—both men who were accepting of the fact that I was nursing in the middle of this meeting. About halfway through my baby was done, and I started to smoothly set him to one side and zip up my jacket like I normally did after nursing. I’d nursed this baby in public all over town and rarely had a problem. But in that moment, the zipper got stuck, and I couldn’t fix it one handed.

Out of options, and unable to concentrate on the meeting, I disrupted the conversation and said, “Excuse me one moment.” I handed the baby to my boss, stood up, and fixed the zipper, but not before I exposed more of myself than I had hoped to. It was a startling moment, this moment of being unzippered.  It’s the kind of moment the lady in black was trying to avoid Saturday at church. The kind of surprise and discomfort I felt at being stopped by a stranger who asked me to zip her dress. It is perhaps the kind of surprise and discomfort Zacchaeus felt at being called out of his tree and imposed upon for dinner.

Being unzippered in church. What would that look like? What delightful mischief would Jesus get up to if we let our guard down? He surprised Zacchaeus into giving half his money to the poor and paying back those he’d defrauded four times over. If Jesus was here this morning, unizppered, what might we do for him? What might we do for each other if we had the honesty and courage to come to church unzippered? What might we do for the world in such a moment of self-honesty and vulnerability?

Impossible! You say. Improbable! Inappropriate! Unzippered in church! Not as grievous a sin as chewing gum in church, perhaps, but surely you would find someone to zip you up as soon as possible!

But what if you didn’t. What if you let that 10 inches of zipper just stay stuck—exposing just a bit more skin than you are normally comfortable with—what secrets of your soul might leak out? How much more of the Spirit might sneak in through the gap? How might you be saved from yourself this day?  It’s something to think about, being unzippered in church.

One never knows when Jesus might call you out of your tree and insist upon following you home for dinner. And one answer to that dilemma is to keep your house clean at all times, dinner ready, the guest room made up. But another answer is to let your house be as it is, and to welcome the Spirit into your home just how it is. The other answer is to just be unzippered and not worry too much about it. Take Jesus home for dinner and offer up those carrots and ranch. Move the newspapers off the chair to offer a place to sit, and let the children run as they do. Let the Spirit startle you in a moment of undress and disarray, and then see what comes.

May you be lost and found many times over. And may the Spirit find you half-dressed every time. Amen.


  1. I have two church zipper stories for you Katie.

    First is when I was visiting out of town. Picture me age 17 at a Baptist church where the Pulpit Pounding Pastor was pacing up and down in front of the congregation with his zipper down from the moment he set foot up front. At the first hymn I took a card from the pew in front of me and as quietly as possible handed it to an usher and asked him to had it to the pastor in a quiet moment. Instead he Rushed it to the front believing it to be an urgent prayer request or call of some sort.

    Brother Bubba grabbed it and pressed it to his heart first then to his head praying for my guidance and soul before he read Loudly= to the congregation, "Sir, you may want to zip your pants before you expose more than the truth of the Lord to your followers". After the service I slipped out the side instead of going to the back to shake hands and introduce myself, and did not return when in that town again.

    Second story is that when the last of the 5 kids moved out my mom regularly would go up to one of the ushers at church and drop the back of her sweater and ask for zipper service. Not empty nest syndrome by any means, but it did cause it's dilemmas

  2. What wonderful stories! Thank you :-)

  3. We should mourn both Oscar Grant and Daniel Faulkner, and offer our sympathies to their loved ones.

  4. I am always sorrowful about violent deaths, and offer my sympathies to their loved ones. Here, today, I am lifting up racial violence as a particular concern.

  5. Nice! This is one I intend to file away for another time, the story, so that years down the road I can be preaching and say, "A colleague of mine tells of a time when she was walking..."

    A very nice sermon, new and fresh, on an old and familiar story. Thanks :)