Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on October 29, 2016 at 6:00PM and October 30, 2016 at 8:00am and 10:30am Masses
There is a lot of preparation that goes into a homily: prayer, Bible study, checking biblical commentaries, and researching the writings of popes and saints. This time I included one unusual step that I never included before. I decided to climb a tree. I used to love to climb trees, but it has been decades since I have actually climbed a tree, and I found that it is not as easy as it used to be. There is a lot of talk about global warming, but I think that people are ignoring a much more serious issue – the ever increasing power of gravity. I used to be able to easily jump and touch a basketball rim, but I had to get out a ladder to climb our oak tree and the branches are much lower than a basketball rim. When I finally did get into the tree, it was difficult to climb very high and if I strayed too far from the trunk, the branches would begin to creak and bend toward the ground.
You know I forgot how much I loved climbing trees. Growing up I did it all the time. I would hide from my dad when he wanted me to mow the lawn or cut the hedges . Nobody knows you are up there. You can just hang out and hide for a while.
In today’s gospel Zacchaeus hangs out in a tree. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, but he is short and there are large crowds of people in the street. Zacchaeus will be unable to see Jesus. So he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus climbs the tree so that he might look down upon Jesus as he passes by. Zacchaeus probably expected that Jesus would not notice him in the tree as he passed by, and that would be OK with Zacchaeus, because as it says in the gospel he was only “seeking to see who Jesus was.” He was just curious to see who Jesus was. He didn’t want to meet Jesus, get his autograph, take a selfie with him, or have any personal encounter with him at all. He was happy to simply remain hidden and at a distance from Jesus.
I think that what is true for Zacchaeus is often true for our spiritual lives. We spend a good deal of our lives hiding of at a distance from our Lord. We are satisfied with coming to Mass, attending an occasional parish event, and praying, but we are often hesitant to truly encounter Jesus in a real and personal way in our everyday lives. We do have all this stuff happening at home, work, school, and families, and so we make excuses like “I’m just too busy” or maybe that Jesus is too busy to worry about us.
Maybe that is why Zacchaeus was in the tree. Maybe he thought that Jesus was too busy for him. But as a tax collector making money by overcharging people what they owed the Roman government and keeping the extra money for himself, he also probably felt a little guilty and sinful. Because of his short stature and the negative feelings the people had about him, he also probably felt small, insignificant, and unimportant. And because it was Jesus, he also was probably intimidated by his wisdom and power. There were so many reasons for Zacchaeus to be in the tree. The same I think is true for us as well. We do not approach Jesus as closely as we should sometimes because sometimes we too sinful, unworthy, small, insignificant, unimportant, intimidated – the list goes on and on.
At vacation bible school many years ago I learned a song about Zacchaeus that is one of my favorite religious songs. I’ll spare you from having to hear me sing it, but the best part is not sung anyway. In the middle of each verse the music stopped and everyone would point upward and shout as loud as they could, “Zacchaeus, come down!” Back then I loved it because I loved making noise, but today it is because of its truth. Jesus shouts out to each of us all the time, “David, come down!” “Mary, come down!” “John, come down!” “My Beloved, come down!” Jesus loves us so much that he wants us with him no matter what. We need not worry about who he is or we are or what we have done. There is nothing to fear.
Of course it is not easy for us. The hardest part of climbing a tree is of course coming back down. I almost had to use my cellphone to call the fire department to bring a hook and ladder truck, like they do for cats to get me out of the tree. Coming down is difficult because you are facing away from where your hands and feet are going, upside down from the way you need to be. You are much more fearful, apprehensive, and cautious on the way down. You notice the distance between you and the ground much more going down. When our lives are upside down or we going the wrong way, we need to turn to the Lord, despite any distance we have put between him and us. It’s the Lord, he is love, mercy, and forgiveness. We wants us on solid ground. The easiest way out of a tree is to simply let go of the branches. Our Lord is waiting to catch us.
Another reason is that it is hard to come down out of a tree is that it is a really great time. It’s an escape. A way to get away from it all. You don’t have to mow the lawn or rake leaves. They have a couple of TV shows right now where they build these very fancy and elaborate tree houses so that people can enjoy getting away from it all in their own backyard, complete with electricity, running water, air conditioning, TV, and Wi-Fi. They have it all. Sometimes I think that’s how we view our lives without the Lord, we think we have it all. We can do what we want and live the “high life”. We think if we get close to the Lord we are going to have to follow a bunch of rules and he is going to ask us to do things for other people. He is going to ask us to be different people. He is going to ask us to change.
I think we all would like to be better people. I think we all see areas in our lives where we can improve. But we fear the change. In the small group I am involved with at the weekly Discovering Christ presentation, the biggest factor we felt that draws people to Christ is the difference he makes in people and their lives. He changes everything. Zacchaeus was a sinful and unimportant tax collector. But all of that changed the day he climbed out of that tree. He became a new man. His life was different. He was no longer hiding in a tree and he was filled with joy.
Jesus knows us and everything about us and yet he still calls out to us, “My Beloved, come down!” When need to listen to that call and when we hear it, put aside our fears, apprehensions, and all the other busy-ness in our lives to come down out of our comfortable trees and answer that call. We will not just be different people, we will be better people, the people we were meant to be. Our lives will not just be changed, they will be transformed. We all are seeking joy and we can have it, but we will never find it on our own. We have to be like Zacchaeus and climb down from the branches and into the arms of our Lord. Only then will we find joy and the “high life” of salvation.
Rejoice and be glad!