Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Curious George

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Kate Alexander of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with her permission. 

Each night, my two boys and I engage in a familiar routine: bath, book, bed, the “3 B’s.” For the most part, the “3 B’s” are non-negotiable, but the one variable we allow in the routine is that second “B”: book. They get to hear the story of their choice. Books about pirates, dump trucks, and cats in hats are standard fare, but now that we’ve been in the Halloween season, the top choice lately, and I mean every night, has been Curious George Goes to a Costume Party. It’s a typical tale of that inquisitive little monkey who can’t help but get into trouble. But despite his propensity for making messes, George is somehow always able to bring joy to those who witness his shenanigans. Mix mummies, skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts into that timeless storyline and you’ve got a couple of happy kids.

On Halloween, Curious George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat, went to a costume party. Unfortunately, George didn’t have a costume. So the host, Mrs. Gray, sent him upstairs to look for a one in her box of dress-up clothes. To his great delight, he found a cowboy outfit. But when he put it on, he wasn’t tall enough to see himself in the mirror. So he stood on the bed, but he still couldn’t see. George was curious. What if he bounced on the bed to get higher? He started bouncing, higher and higher, and forgot about the mirror in all the fun. He fell off the bed with a loud thud, and got tangled up in a tablecloth. George heard the people downstairs gasp, ‘What was that? Was that a ghost?’ A ghost?! George did not want to meet up with a ghost alone. He dashed out of the room and down the hall, covered in the tablecloth, and slid down the banister into the arms of his friend. Soon everyone realized that the ghost coming down the stairs was not a ghost after all, but a monkey. Everyone clapped and cheered. They liked George’s Halloween trick.

This charming story has delighted children around Halloween for decades. Just about all of the Curious George books have a similar plot. George’s curiosity gets the best of him, he gets distracted from the task at hand, winds up in trouble, and is eventually forgiven, rescued, and restored to good standing with his friend, the man with the yellow hat. That restoration is always a joyful event, and George is always relieved. The reason this plot line is so successful, is that, it is pretty much true to life. We get distracted, sidetracked, and sometimes wind up in trouble in one way or another. And we know what it feels like to be forgiven, rescued, and restored to good standing. That is always a joyful event.

Of course, I was quick to draw a comparison between Curious George and Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel. I suppose it’s just a hazard of having a steady diet of children’s literature built into your daily routine. But there really are surprising parallels between Curious George stories and the story of Zacchaeus. The parallels do go deeper than the fact that they are both short in stature, or even that they have a propensity for climbing trees. The true parallel has to do with curiosity that leads to conversion and joyful restoration to community.

Zacchaeus had been up to his own shenanigans as the chief tax collector. All tax collectors were wealthy from skimming off the top of what they collected, but chief tax collectors were particularly rich and despised. We don’t know exactly what he knew about Jesus or why he so desperately wanted to catch a glimpse of him as Jesus walked by. But whatever the reason, it compelled him to climb a sycamore tree so he could see over the crowd. “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” Of course the crowd grumbled that Jesus would choose such a despicable character to honor in this way. But there stood Zacchaeus through it all, with a big smile on his face. Being forgiven, rescued, and restored to good standing is always a joyful event.

Amazed by the encounter, Zacchaeus’s response went over the top. He vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay restitution four-fold to all those he had defrauded in his tax collecting. Because of his joyful turning around, the poor would be fed and clothed and households throughout the region would have unexpected income. His conversion was not only a private, personal affair of getting right with God, so to speak. It had significant social and economic dimensions as well. Because of his conversion, not only was he becoming a better person, but the world around him could be a little better off, too.

The implications of this story are huge. At some point in our lives, I’ll bet that all of us here today have been curious about this man Jesus. No doubt there are many stories that people here could tell about when Jesus came walking through their lives, and they wanted to get a better look. And at some point, perhaps Jesus caught sight of you in the crowd and a life-changing encounter happened. The impact of that event for Zacchaeus was dramatic. It caused him to rethink his entire life, to evaluate his priorities, and to do something about it. Especially in a stewardship season, the story of Zacchaeus should give us pause, because we might just be compelled into a conversion like his, and into a generosity that could help the world be a little better off.

Jesus declared, “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.” Zacchaeus, now a joyful saint in the church, was found. Being found leads to the serious business of changing one’s life to reflect one’s confession. But being found is also an occasion for celebration. The Gospel is not only about ethics, it is also about joy. The image of Zacchaeus smiling can compel us to do better in our lives. And it can also remind us of the simple fact that there is rejoicing in heaven whenever the lost are found. Being forgiven, rescued and restored to good standing is always a joyful event.

Each night, my boys and I reach for the Curious George anthology. They look at the pictures in the table of contents and pick which story they want to hear. And no matter if it’s the one about the Halloween costume party or the one about George’s camping trip or visit to the library, I know the plot will be the same: curiosity leads to something unexpected, there is a much-needed rescue, and finally there is joy all around. The same was true for Zacchaeus, and the same is true for us. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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