Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 30 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Ps 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12; Lk 19:1-10

I was always very small for my age as a child—still fairly small as an adult—and a constant climber on furniture and kitchen counters and fences and, especially, trees. The lilac tree in the yard of my family home, where I had a special favourite perch among the branches; the mulberry tree at my grandparents’ house in Niagara. I have fewer opportunities to climb trees these days, but I remember the strange security of it, the sense of being able to see without being seen, a private quiet omniscience.

Most of us, I think, remember being children, too small to see through crowds of adults; remember climbing and clinging and perching. So there is an almost automatic sympathy with Zacchaeus, this small man, unable to get a good view through the crowds, clambering up a handy sycamore tree, in the hope of seeing something, something important, something new. It’s hard to know exactly what he wanted or expected. As a chief tax collector, he would have seen a lot of human misery, and much of it would have been caused by himself. So perhaps he wanted, in catching a glimpse of this notorious new teacher, to see something other than that. Perhaps he hoped to see for a moment, from a distance, something fresh or good or alive, something other than the daily dirty cycle of profit and loss that he himself had made of his life. To see without being seen, maybe not believing himself worthy of being seen—not darting out to the front of the crowd, but waiting alone among the branches.

And the prophet Habakkuk, in our first reading, he climbs up as well, into his watchtower, also in the hope of seeing, seeing something other than “wrongdoing and trouble,” something other than the violence and suffering which surrounds him. And he is given, not quite a vision yet of something, but still the promise of a vision, and a duty to hand on that promise, to say that there is indeed more to be seen. There is goodness coming, though you may not know the shape of it.

So they wait, Habakkuk, Zacchaeus, broken and guilty, but hopeful still. Now, I think it’s important that the story of Zacchaeus follows immediately after another story about seeing, the story of the blind man who is named elsewhere, though not in Luke, as Bartimeaus. Like Zaccheus, this man wants to see—that is, in fact, the one thing he says when he’s brought before Jesus. But he grasps something which Zaccheus initially does not; that before he can see, before he can really see, he must be seen. And he kicks up an unholy fuss, in whatever way he can, until the crowd finally notices him, and brings him before Jesus, and Jesus sees him, and asks him what he wants. And this blind man knows, as well, that this being seen, and this restoration of his own sight, his own seeing, will have consequences. He is one of the very few beneficiaries of a healing miracle who explicitly becomes a disciple.

Zaccheus, I think, hopes at first, or at least part of him hopes, that he can have one without the other. But, almost before he has a chance to see, he is seen. This person, this man from Nazareth, is someone who cannot be simply an image, the passive object of a gaze. You cannot only look. God looks back, looks at you, into you, and you are changed.

To be seen—to be really seen, for who we are, in all our beauty and all our failure, our misery and our violence, our tenderness and our ineradicable longing for what is good and true—is something that we deeply fear and deeply desire. We want to be known, in a way that goes beyond all our social fronts and presentations and hopeful posturing, to be known for ourselves and not rejected; seen for who we are and embraced.

Mostly, we are too afraid to let ourselves be seen. Mostly, we hold onto the presentations, because the risk is too great. But sometimes, we have that moment of allowing another person to see us in something like our reality and accept us as such; sometimes we have that moment of seeing another person, flawed and illuminated, full of imperfections and unspeakably lovely. To have that moment of sight, and to surrender to being so seen, may be as good a working definition of love as any that we’re going to come up with. And if there is any reality in it, it changes us, sometimes very profoundly. When the prophet on his high rampart sees and is seen, everything is different.

So Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree, and says, we will eat together. I will come into your house, I will come into your life. I know who you are. I know who you really are, my poor lost beloved. And it will be different now.

Zaccheus probably half-knows already the change which is demanded, but he can only formulate it in terms of calculations and mathematical compensations. Now, there’s an ambiguity in the tense of the Greek verbs here. He may be promising that in future he will give half his money to the poor and restore what he’s taken; or he may actually be saying that he already gives money to the poor, already makes restitution when he realizes that he’s done something wrong, that he’s not such a bad tax-collector really … And perhaps he isn’t, perhaps he has been trying to live ethically already, has spent his life in the struggle both to be a chief tax collector and to be good.

Or maybe this is the first time he’s made these promises, the first time he’s considered that what he does with his money relates to what he does with his soul. It doesn’t much matter. In either case, it’s at the same time not enough—not even close to real self-offering, or even to giving all his possessions to the poor, as Jesus has demanded of another man not long before this incident—and yet everything, because he has seen his life for what it is, a patchwork of calculation and shortfalling, seen himself as a little man on every level, small and so vulnerable and shrunken in his very being; and he’s looked at that, and he has come down, to stand before that gaze.

The sacrament of baptism is, like all sacraments, a deep mystery which we must look at through a range of metaphors, no human word capable of containing it entirely. But we might think about it, today, as in part that moment when we stand in that gaze, when we are wholly seen, wholly understood, and wholly received, as the fullness of our selves which even we, no matter what age, do not entirely understand. We are received in our smallness; we are received in our goodness. And every time we repeat our baptismal vows, we are once again offering ourselves to that seeing, that knowing, that turning around.

We are always surrendering; coming down from our transparent hiding places, trying to explain ourselves, knowing it is futile, knowing it is all right. We are always going back out, in the world we have failed and damaged, trying to do what good we can, repair what we are able, make new. Speak the vision, build the kingdom. Like Zacchaeus in his tree, like the prophet on his lonely tower. Like small Patrick, and Jasmine, and all of us here, all of us children among the branches, straining for a glimpse of something new, seen and known and invited, called into new life, over and over, now and always.