1 Timothy 4:9-15 (NRSA)
Luke 19:1-10 (NRSA)
It’s falling very early this year, no? It’s still mid-January. January 4th if you’re on the old calendar! (I wonder if, on the OC, it’s possible for this Sunday to fall in December? Anyway…) Nex Sunday the Triodion starts. We prepare for Lent. The Journey starts today! And I confess I love Lent! It is my favourite part of the year, my favourite time to stand with God.
I’ve been reading Fr Schmemann’s great introduction to Orthodoxy, For the Life of the World. Most recently I was reading the section on Chrismation and there is a tie-in for us here on Zacchaeus Sunday. We’ll get there in a minute… His journey is not a long one – from his house, up the road, and finally up the tree. He had, of course, a life time of journey before that, all bringing him to this fateful day. The Gospel seems to boil it all down to the symbolism of his tree-climb, which the Fathers saw as a mark of his desire.
Zacchaeus climbed a tree and where have we gone?
When I decided I didn’t believe all of this Christian stuff any more – at the ripe and wise age of 25 or so – I left the (Episcopal) church and journey on a long path through several different religions and “spiritualities”. I also added new levels of meaning to the word “publican” which, at least in the British Isles, means “bar tender”. For a time I was a minister in a non-Christian group – which required an ordination ceremony. My mom was there – along with people from about 5 or 6 different religions. I said on that day that the Holy One sure was full of surprises: because no matter where I went, there He was.
At that ceremony in that non-Christian tradition, two Christian musician friends of mine led the gathered group in a song by Sylvan Dunstan. The first verse reads,
Bless now, O God, the journey that all your people make,
the path through noise and silence, the way of give and take.
The trail is found in desert, and winds the mountain round,
then leads beside still waters, the road where faith is found.
Zacchaeus went up a tree, where have we gone?
Finally, after all that decade of journeying I found myself going, again, to a Church in San Francisco and working for a Roman Catholic university, my Mom laughed and said, “you can’t get away from the Lord.”
Lent is a Journey: everyone will tell you so. Those who make a spiritual practice of reading St John’s great work “The Ladder of Perfection” begin to see the journey as climbing Jacob’s ladder upward. Those who paint icons will tell you of the journey to that inner vision of beauty. Spiritual elders will tell you of the journey to the vision of the Uncreated Light. Today the Gospel tells us of a journey up a tree.
We could talk my journey that brought me here – of your journey that brings your here… but if we focus only on the journey that Zacchaeus makes, we might miss the point: all by itself, climbing a tree to see God-Incarnate can be just as useful as building a Tower to Heaven.
Our Lord was walking that day up the road towards Zacchaeus. A curious thing happens: climbing the tree, Zacchaeus finds that Jesus was already coming to see him. He says, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house.” You almost want Him to say, “What are you doing up that tree, I’ve been waiting for supper all this time, now stop playing and come down!”
It’s not enough that Zacchaeus was looking around: God was looking for Zacchaeus. Mom has it right: you can’t get away from the Lord.
St Nicholas Cabasilas says, “It was not we ourselves who were moved toward God, nor did we ascend to Him; but it was He who came and descended to us. It was not we who sought, but we were the object of His seeking. The sheep did not seek for the shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the master of the house; He it was who came to the earth and retrieved His own image, and He came to the place where the sheep was straying and lifted it up and stopped it from straying. He did not remove us from here, but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth, and imparted to us the heavenly life not by leading us up to heaven but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down.”
That is NOT, however, the only aspect. If we let St Nicholas take us along we’ll imagine that nothing we do is important. God is not some massive chess player with us as pawns waiting to be moved or not. Our desire, our passion, our quest for God is needed as well. James says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8)
But there is more…
Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’ house! There is more than just desire, more than just seeing. You can’t do everything God wants from the ivory tower from up in the tree… you have to come down. Relate to God. Relate to People. You have to be in fellowship. Be in communion. It won’t work otherwise.
Remind yourself where you were when God found you. Yes, even there: come here, Jesus says to you, we’re going to have a meal together – This day is salvation come to this house. Salvation – the Greek word root is “sozo”, healing, health, wholeness. It means not that this man was “Saved” that he’s getting out of hell when he dies. It means this man is restored to relationship with God and with others.
Zacchaeus is, for us, a model of repentance. But for us, in this community, there is something more: the crowd doesn’t really like Zacchaeus, yes? Verse 7 says All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
You and I know how people in Church can be. This man was seeking God. God was seeking him. This man and God embraced. And all the “good people” said, “YER DOING IT WRONG!”
The second verse of that song I heard sung so long ago echoes the prayer we utter at each liturgy “for all mankind” – Christains or not, knowing or not, we are all seekers.
Bless sojourners and pilgrims who share this winding way,
whose hope burns through the terrors, whose love sustains the day.
We yearn for holy freedom while often we are bound;
together we are seeking the road where faith is found.
We are all on this journey together – that includes not only us standing in Church. St Paul calls God “Savior of all people, especially – but he does not “only” – of them that believe. Everyone is on this journey. Some may not get there in this life time: and we continue to pray for them after they are gone. Some of us may think we have finally arrived when, as Zacchaeus found, there was something more to do. He thought he wanted only to see this cool guy he heard about. Instead he found himself saying, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore to him fourfold.”
How’s that for a costly tree climb?
Lent is this journey for us. Today, Zacchaeus Sunday, is the day we realise not only that we are seeking God, but, lo, God is seeking us. All of this prepares us for our Baptism – our bringing of our life to Christ. You may remember the beginning of this sermon… where I said I’d been reading Fr Schmemann.
Zacchaeus is not asked to give up much: be is asked to do something different with it, yes. But he is not asked to Stop being Zacchaeus. He doesn’t leave this story as anything other than the Publican he was: he’s just a repentant publican.
When he stands up before the God who has come into his house to have a party… Zacchaeus has his own moment of catching the Spirit. Jesus’ presence, God there, is the Spirit’s presence as well, no? You can’t have on without the other…
Chrismation, confirmation (which we do daily, I think) is each our own Pentecost, says Fr Schmemann.
“Confirmation is thus the personal Pentecost” of each of us, our “entrance into the new life in the Holy Spirit, which is the true life of the Church. It is is our ordination as fully human, for to be fully human is to belong to the Kingdom of God. And again, it is not our “soul” alone – our “spiritual” or “religious” life that is thus confirmed, but the totality of our human being. Our how body is anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to the new life: “The seal of the gift of the Holy SPirit,” says the Priest as he anoints the newly baptisxed, “on the brow, and on the eyes and the nostrils, and the lips, and on both ears, and the breast and on the hands, and the feet.” The whole person is not made the temple of God, and her whole live is from now on a liturgy. It is here, at this moment, that the pseudo-Christian opposition of the “spiritual” and the “material” the “sacred” and the “profane”, the “religious” and the “Secular” is denounced, abolished, and revealed as a monstrous lie about God and us and the world. The only true temple of God is the full human and through us the whole world. Each ounce of matter belongs to God and is to find in God its fulfillment. Each instant of time is God’s time and is to fulfill itself as God’s eternity. Nothing is “neutral.” …
To be fully man means to be fully oneself. The confirmation is the confirmation of each of us in his or her own unique “personality”. It is, to use again the same image, the ordination of each of us to be him or herself, to be what God wants him or her to be, what God as loved in me from all eternity. It is the gift of vocation.
Zacchaeus, the newly-illumined, the saved saint of God, stands up and realises what he has – gives it away. Realises he’s sinned – repents. ALL in response to God’s coming to him, God’s eating with him, God’s presence in his life.
The final verse of that song relies on symbolism that St Gregory of Nyssa found replete in the Song of Songs. His commentary on that work is nearly scandalous for in many passages that we must admit would be “banned in Boston” for sexual imagery, we find the true meaning of God’s searching for us.
Divine eternal lover, you meet us on the road.
We wait for land of promise where milk and honey flow,
but waiting not for places, you meet us all around.
Our covenant is written on roads, as faith is found.’
You are here, now. You feast with God, the eternal lover of your soul and your body and your heart and your mind. Closer to you than any friend or friend with benefits, or friend we cuddle with or spouse we love! When you rise from this table confirmed in your whole self, in your full personhood with God, what will be your covenant? What will be the response that you bring? What will be your life, your fullness, your salvation?
Zacchaeus climbed a tree. Where have you gone? You can’t get away from the Lord.