Seeing Saints |Luke 19:1-10
Rev. Catherine Smith
There’s a book called a Tree Full of Angels, by Macrina Wiederkehr. Today on the edge of this “thin place in the turning of the year” it might be more apt to think about a tree full of saints. Or one saint at least – Zacchaeus. It was the tree that for me strung Wiederkehr’s title to our Gospel text. But as I let my imagination go, I moved to the subtitle of Wiederkehr,’s book, Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. And I began to imagine not only how difficult it sometimes is to see ourselves as saints (even when we’ve been captured on ipad as I understand many of you were last Sunday) but to get our hearts around how Jesus’ sees the sacred in the ordinary: how he sees saints in us and other imperfect souls; how he calls the light out of the darkness of us. How he pries at the opening in a person’s life that lets God-light shine through them.
Today this day that is two days after All Saints, I invite you to enter this morning’s story looking for saints. I invite you to enter holding in mind the Godly Play question:
“I wonder what part of the story is about you? I invite you to “immerse yourself in the story and identify with its figures” and to ask yourself where you are in it.
And I invite you to think about climbing trees.
When was the last time you climbed at tree?
Probably, for many of us it wasn’t yesterday, – or maybe it was yesterday. I re-learn every day not to make assumptions. The trees I used to climb, and that certainly wasn’t yesterday, were at in Grand Prè, in Nova Scotia. They grew along a sleepy river,broad low trees that spread out their old branches like hands cupped together ready to give me a boost. I don’t think many people except me would consider it an adventure to climb in those gentle, generous trees, but I did. It was an extraordinary kind of movement and yet so deeply recognized within me.
Most tree climbing is not that easy. It’s not always dignified. That’s why we often laid it aside when we grew up, except if a particular piece of work called us to climb. And then we wore suitable clothes, and took safety precautions. Most of us would not take a chance on clawing our way up rough and treacherous branches wearing our best clothes and bare feet. And we especially wouldn’t take that chance in front of a lot of people who despised us, who would jeer at us, who would even take delight in seeing us fall. We don’t like to take those chances. Some powerful yearning would have to take hold in us to initiate such risk-taking, to draw us to expose ourselves to ridicule and danger. We would have to want very much to see.
As Zacchaeus wanted very much to see. A short, hated man with his posh suit, his soft leather shoulder bag and his and his handmade shoes, Zacchaeus felt rising in him a long-suppressed yearning. He had pressed it down under a thin despair for as long as he could remember. But rumours were prying it up, this yearning. Zachaeus had heard that Jesus was coming to his town of Jericho. Word spread that he had healed a blind man on the outskirts of town earlier that morning And Zacchaeus, pouring over the accounts in the huge stone Herodian office complex, had gradually become less and less able to keep his mind on his work. At noon he went out, into the desultory crowds already gathered in clusters and little lines along the broad street where Jesus was expected to travel.
Zachaeus went out, knowing, as he always knew, that though the crowds would be afraid to lay hands on him for fear of Herod’s soldiers, there was often a brave soul who would lob a piece of rotten fruit at him. He could feel in his imagination its sickly, sweet pulp, landing on his back, branding him with its slow sticky slide between his shoulders, branding him traitor, a traitor to people with whom he shared the same blood. His was the lot of a Jewish tax collector, by reason of his work in collaboration with the Romans.
Zacchaeus had lived with the riches his family and his job provided as long as he could remember. He felt trapped in this life as much as others were trapped in poverty. It was not the same of course. He had more comfort, more amusement, more options, but he felt trapped nonetheless. Try as he might he couldn’t begin to wrap his mind around making a change. And he knew having once been a tax collector, even if he change he did, pious religious folk would never believe he was capable of anything good. He would be forever dodging rotten fruit.
So Zacchaeus was a desperate man, a short, hunch-shouldered, furrow-faced man for whom hope was seeping out from under the once sealed lid of despair. All during the morning as he sat at his books the urge had grown in him to meet face to face this Jesus, this one who gave sight to blind men, who turned life upside down. and shook saints from sinners. All morning he wondered. And then Zacchaeus found himself in that gathering crowd looking for that place where he might be both be safe and be seen.
All the while he was committing himself to action the crowds had been thickening,blocking him from any hope of access to Jesus. As that tin lid of despair began to seal again Zacchaeus found himself thrust against an old sycamore tree. Sycamore, the tree of life, some called it. He heard from the crowd the aaahh of recognition, he sensed in their focussed restlessness the approaching Jesus. But he couldn’t see.
As an unruly hope burst free in him, Zacchaeus grabbed the trunk of that life tree,
And slithered up hoping to find that spot where branch met trunk . Can you see those stocky legs bending, can you hear the rip of fine cloth, can you imagine what he was risking? There he waited gripping the tree of life, a rich, well-dressed bureaucrat clinging to the branch of a tree, more than foolish, he looked, . . . . unhinged,.
I imagine it seemed like forever Zacchaeus clung to that sycamore, holding his breath,watching Jesus come nearer. Even when he stopped right under that tree, Zacchaeus would be hard pressed to gasp out his name. But Jesus took up the movement of relationship. He somehow read the sacred in the text of Zachaeus life . He stopped under the sycamore and looked up, and then as if he’d been hanging out with Zaccheus for years (as in some way of course he had) Jesus said “Come down, quickly, I want to have supper with you. And Zacchaeus did. Happy is to light a word for what he felt.
Overcome, undone, suspended in a new future. Happy is too light a word.
There is a bubble of silence around this moment, pierced, after one long held breath length, by the shrill complaint of the bystanders. Why would Jesus eat with this guy?
And before we settle ourselves down to inhabit one character in this story let’s remember, whatever recompense Zacchaeus offered, the crowd would see him as one writer describes, “like the broker who added hidden fees to our widowed mother’s mortgage so that he could vacation in Barbados”. Why would Jesus eat with someone like that?
It’s the crowd’s question. And where are we in this outrageous story? That’s ours.
Perhaps this morning we do find ourselves in the yearning of Zaccheus. Perhaps we are in the jeering crowd or perhaps we feel ourselves in the invitation of Jesus. Wherever we are this morning, over a lifetime we will experience ourselves in all three.
In the church these days all over the place people have taken to tree-climbing. We climb up out of buildings, structures, outgrown habits, unfaithful connections, and perhaps most of all old judgements. We climb because more than anything we’ve ever possessed or been possessed by we yearn to be with this one who gave sight to blind men, who turns life upside down and shakes saints from sinners.
We climb tentatively, or boldly, with limber bodies or arthritic joints. We climb with a burst of passion or with a weary resignation. Some of us have had our hope almost sealed over by a thin despair. But many of us are climbing trees. Saints once pinned to the ground by derision, their own. or someone else’s, are called by a yearning like that of Zacchaeus to climb a tree, to see the one who invites us — and to become the ones who invite.
This morning we give thanks for all those who have climbed with us, who rest with us still in the limbs of grace, whether hidden from view by death or by an appearance yet to be made through birth. For all the company of saints and for the God who creates and sees us good, we give thanks.