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Climbing Down from the Sycamore

November 3, 2007

The Backseat Homilist

Readings for Nov. 4, the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

I can’t read the story of Zacchaeus without revisiting a week about 18 years ago when my husband Jess climbed down from his own personal Sycamore tree.

Not long after we were married, we went on an urban immersion experience offered by the inner-city parish we attended in Rochester, NY. As part of this Heart of the City retreat we lived for a week with the parish priest who had a house in one of the poorest sections of the city. During the day we visited the various outreaches that the parish had set up to serve the people of the neighborhood – a hospice for the dying, a health care center, a visitation program for those in prison and a support group and training facility for those newly released, a child-care center and a resale store that emphasized clothing people with dignity. We attended daily Mass, prayed together and in the evening we discussed how our lives and our faith were enriched and challenged by our encounters with people in poverty in our city.

On several occassions, Jess had shared stories of times when he had not responded to unjust situations before him, but rather had observed from an uncomfortable and alienated distance. Finally a team member said to him, “You know, Jess, you remind me of Zacchaeus. You are up in the tree watching everything pass by. Now Jesus has stopped beneath your tree. Maybe what’s before you now is an invitation to come down.”

As I recall, it was a startling moment. Jess had been called out, or rather, called down. Now he had to make a decision. And it wasn’t simply a decision about his relationship to justice; it was a decision about his relationship to Jesus. Ask him today and he will tell you that he cannot separate the two – he cannot sustain a faith in Jesus, he says, if it does not involve concern for and engagement with a broken world.

I share this story because the same subtext flows beneath Jess’ story and the original story from Luke. Both are narratives about what happens when the one seeking God – even from a distance — encounters the God seeking him, and the risky invitation to relationship that ensues.

Now Jess, of course, was no tax collector. The community had not rejected him for his choice of work. He did not bear the label of public sinner. He’s not even short. But I think he would say that his encounters with church and society to that point had left him profoundly alienated from both, to the point that he would observe but not commit. I think he had been longing for something to mend the breach, or at least to describe it accurately — a different perspective as it were. And he and I both were waking up to our complicity in the public sin of indifference, a sin often exacerbated by privilege.

Both Jess and Zacchaeus encountered a God who keeps an eye out for ones such as them, a God who scans the places where people shouldn’t be and invites them to where they could be. Jesus’ most profound acts of healing were those that drew people into the redemptive love of God and of one another.

Sunday’s first reading from the book of Wisdom describes this love in aching clarity. From God’s point of view the “whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” And yet who could be closer than one who made all things and thus “loves all things that are”, who never fashioned something hateful.

God, why don’t you come swiftly with your wrathful vengeance to purge the land of the selfish rich, the evildoer and the sinner? Because “you spare all things because they are yours … for your imperishable spirit is in all things! Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you….”

Not only does this old “lover of souls” rebuke little by little, but God also gently coaxes us down from our fears and doubts and misgivings. And then blesses us with the gift to do the same for others.

There are two challenges in this Gospel. As sinners who long for Jesus, we must not doubt that when he encounters us he will invite himself over for dinner. And as the body of Christ, formed as such by our communion with Jesus, we must never hesitate to scan the margins for the lost who long for a God they can bring home to the family.

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