“Climb that tree!” a Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost


Readings: 2 Thess 1:1-4, 11-12; Ps 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

A ten-year-old, under the tutelage of her grandmother, was becoming quite knowledgeable about the Bible. Then one day she floored her grannie by asking, “Which virgin was the mother of Jesus? The virgin Mary or the King James Virgin?” Children always have a unique take on things, don’t they?

Our location shapes our outlook on life and our approach to spirituality. I’ve been engaging in very challenging reflection in my coursework at Emmanuel College. I’m learning more about my privilege and the broad impact white, Christian, patriarchy has had in the Western world. I’m reading the perspectives of black, Latino/a, Indigenous, and feminist authors who expose the historical and modern injustices experienced by the marginalized.

A Unique Perspective

This week, I read an article discussing Jesus’ healing stories from the perspective of a disabled person. The author, Sharon Betcher, challenges readers to consider whether the appeal of Jesus’ healing stories lies in our desire to ‘cure’ those who are disabled so that they can become normal, productive members of society. The ‘cured’ would then be able to participate in our systems that determine one’s worth based on their productivity. (She has a fascinating insight that Jesus’ healing accounts might better be read as a reversal of imperial powers that literally left people blind and maimed in their wake, but more on that another time).

So, when I read this week’s gospel involving a central figure whose physical disadvantage was preventing him access to Jesus, I couldn’t help but reflect upon these themes of oppression and liberation. And I wondered more generally about the factors that kept Zacchaeus, and perhaps keep us, from a liberating relationship with Jesus Christ?

What prevents us from Seeing Christ?

Firstly, there could be physical factors, that is, factors outside our control, that hinder us from seeing Christ. Our social condition can play a role here. For example, a person with a disability might have a difficult time accepting Jesus as a healer. Perhaps she/he has prayed for healing, over and over again, to no affect. Or perhaps this person, like author Sharon Betcher, has come to view their limitations not as weakness, or as making them less than a whole person.  For people like Betcher, the stories of Jesus readily healing people could be heard as implying that one HAS to receive such a healing in order to be fully human.

Or perhaps you are a person of colour who has grown up in North America where the images of Jesus were of him as being a blond-haired, blue-eyed man who bore more in common with your white, middle-class neighbour, than with your lived experience. Or if you are a survival of the residential school system – how do you reconcile the idea of a loving God when the people teaching you about this God ripped you away from your parents, punished you for speaking your language, and physically and emotionally abused you? If you are a woman that endured years of spousal abuse, how can you believe Scripture that on the one hand tells you that God is love and on the other tells you to submit to your abusive husband?

Most of us here probably haven’t endured the worst kinds of oppression I just mentioned. But all of us bump up against the limitations either of our social location, or of our literal physical bodies. How many of us have doubted the goodness of God when we’ve faced a painful illness, or the loss of a loved one? I could go on and on, but I think most of us can think of the barriers we’ve felt that have separated us from God.

The Pains of the Past

Zacchaeus’ barriers weren’t limited to the physical realm, however. There was also the matter of his morally questionable behaviour of serving as a Roman collaborator and extorting his country-folk of their funds to become rich. Remember, it was common practice in those days for tax collectors to over-charge their clients to generate an income for themselves. As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus likely built up quite a financial nest egg for himself at the expense of his neighbours.

Maybe we haven’t been guilty of things like extortion, but most of us can probably name things we’ve done that cause us pain and regret. There have been things within our realm of control that might harm our ability to perceive Jesus in our lives and world. It could be something foolish we did in our youth that continues to follow us around in one way or another. It could be the way we hurt someone we cared about, that did irreparable damage to the relationship. One of the most painful experiences of my life came while I was serving in my first parish. I went through the bitter pain of separation and divorce as my marriage failed. I plunged into a dark depression and did some hurtful things to people I cared about as I struggled to find my footing. I felt abandoned by God and didn’t know if I’d ever function as a priest again.

Healing in the Broken Bread

I did find healing. I was blessed by the unconditional love of family. I had a friend and mentor connect me to a faith community where I felt safe to be myself. And I learned to pray from a place of pain and to receive the sacraments of bread and wine on a deeper level. My priest friend would hold up the broken bread and invite us to receive with the words, ‘See what you become, and become what you see, the gifts of God for the people of God.’ I found these words a little puzzling at first and I didn’t think about them too much. That is, until one Sunday when they really hit home.

I don’t know if it was the finality of the divorce or a particular low point in my battle with depression, but one Sunday in December he said those words and suddenly I saw myself in the broken bread. Christ was broken in the bread, I was broken. And God could use me in my brokenness to bring nourishment and maybe even healing to others. I was moved to tears, and I still think about that moment when I receive the sacrament to this day. My posture of pain brought the sacrament to life within me. And out of my own vulnerability I learned to advocate for those suffering from depression and other mental health disorders, and I gained insight into helping others heal from the particular pain of divorce.

Zacchaeus was Driven up that Tree

Zacchaeus’ pain, I believe, drove him to climb that tree. Something inside him hoped that Jesus was the answer to the hole in his heart he felt, a remedy to the pain of regret. Jesus was someone who would truly see him, and maybe, just maybe, love and accept him. Jesus extends the table of hospitality to Zacchaeus, and he is simply overjoyed. And to the grumbling throng, Jesus lets it be known that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. And he is given back his identity as a chosen one, indicated in the title ‘Son of Abraham.’

What can we take from this story today? Simply this: Climb that tree! Find a new vantage point from which to see Jesus. That might involve learning new things, reading books or articles that have a different take on Jesus than you currently share. Or it could mean taking a course that challenges you to think in new ways. Or perhaps it’s exploring different spiritual practices, both within your tradition or from a tradition new to you.

Find a New Vantage Point

I’m going to look for ways to include these kinds of resources in our weekly e-blasts for those who want to come to see Jesus through different eyes. But this newness could also be found in the liturgy, or parts of it, coming alive to you in a new way. (As it receiving the bread did for me several years ago). Our service is rich in meaning, pay attention to words or phrases or actions that puzzle or fascinate you – this could be a sign that God might be trying to speak to you through it.

Our advent experiment will certainly challenge us to approach our worship together from a different perspective. I hope and pray that it will be a valuable learning experience for us a parish that sparks genuine spiritual growth.

Wherever you are on your spiritual journey today, remember that Zacchaeus’ perceived limitations and woundedness drove his pursuit for Jesus. May you also seek after Christ, with all that you are, and may you find the life and purpose you crave. Amen.