Seeing Saints


Luke 19:1-10

This day near the threshold of All Saints, I invite you into 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.
“Always I begin again” 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 one rooted in a holy common 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.
Zacchaeus 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.

Zacchaeus 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 someone 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 thin 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 sound 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 Zacchaeus’ life .
He stopped under the sycamore and looked up,
and then as if he’d been hanging out with Zacchaeus 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 Zacchaeus.

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.

Today 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 time or distance.  For all the company of saints and for the God who creates and sees us good, we give thanks.


Join me on the journey. Rest, Reflect, Replenish


  1. Charlotte Campbell on November 28, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Loved your musings, Catherine, about Zacchaeus. I hope I can carry that same willingness to be captured by the moment to see more clearly.

    • Catherine Smith on November 29, 2016 at 12:18 am

      Thank you Charlotte; here’s to the risk of seeing and being seen.

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