Today’s sermon is about a man named Zacchaeus. We know something about him. He was a “wee little man, and a wee little man was he”….. 🙂
One thing I have realized about this wonderful children’s song is that it teaches a deep spiritual truth about watchfulness.
“He was trying to see who Jesus was.”
When I first started to prepare for this sermon, I couldn’t get past this sentence. “He was trying to see who Jesus was.”
Here is Zacchaeus, looking for Jesus, watching for Jesus, being attentive for Jesus, having this desire within him to see the Lord…to behold Him.
It’s a beautiful image.
And he does see Jesus—yet more importantly, Jesus sees him! There in the tree, straining to catch a glimpse of the Lord. And Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house at that very moment. “Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today.”
Notice what happened: Zacchaeus’ own watchfulness, his own attentiveness to the Lord’s presence led to Jesus seeing him.
There is, of course, a deep spiritual truth here:
At those moments in our lives when we feel the “point” of our prayer is to behold God, to focus on God, to gaze on God—at those moments of insight when we are in such a posture of prayer—we realize, or come to perceive, that the “point” all along is that God has been beholding us. God has been gazing on us all along…and we forget that, we lose sight of that…
Here we thought that our practice of prayer was about gazing on God, when in reality it is about coming to understand that God is gazing at us…and we rest in that gaze…and are drawn into a deeper communion with Christ.
This is why Zacchaeus is a beautiful and powerful story to reflect on…because it is “so us.” Here maybe we thought our practice of prayer was all about our effort or technique, or accomplishing some distinct practice or type of prayer, or maybe trying so hard to be perfect in prayer, when, in reality, it was about yielding and allowing ourselves to accept that we are being held this entire time…by a God who loves us and wants us to know how much we are all loved.
Yet, notice what else happens in this text:
As Zacchaeus yearns to see the Lord, and realizes that he, in reality, is seen by the Lord, he is invited into a deeper communion. Yet, the reaction from those witnessing this encounter is troubling: “All who saw it began to grumble.”
“He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they say to each other.
And there is judgement and condemnation…
So, in the text, we have this complex dynamic of what is being seen and who is seeing:
Zacchaeus yearning to see Jesus and striving to put himself in a position to catch a glimpse of hope,
Jesus seeing Zacchaeus and inviting him into a deeper communion,
And the crowd seeing—and becoming fixated—on what they perceive as something inappropriate, outside the norm, unacceptable.
How many times have we felt like Zacchaeus, wanting so badly to catch a glimpse of God? And maybe how many times have we been like Zacchaeus as well, maybe just for brief moments realizing that we are seen by God…
And how many times, honestly, have we been like the crowd: quick to criticize someone who, maybe, has a slightly different way of seeing God, of looking for God?
The deep currents of this text do invite us into a reflection on what watchfulness looks like, on what attentiveness looks like, in our practice of faith.
Over a thousand years ago, tucked in a monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in modern Egypt, there lived a man named Hesychios, who is now revered as a saint in the Orthodox Church. Hesychios lived in a monastery with an intriguing name: The Monastery of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush, now St. Catherine’s Monastery there at Sinai.
Hesychios wrote wonderful reflections on watchfulness, what in Greek in the Christian contemplative tradition is known as nepsis, from the Greek verb nepho meaning, to stay awake, to be sober, on what we could call a ‘deep practice’ within the Christian tradition, that calls us to pay attention: to our thoughts, to our surroundings, to those yearnings for a deeper experience of God in our lives, to those things that cause us to resist such a deeper experience of God. Hesychios and the early patristics, the early Church fathers and mothers call us to be vigilant in our practice of prayer, to pay attention: to practice mindfulness and watch.
As he described, “Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously (or intentionally) practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words, and evil actions. It leads us, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries” (Philokalia, 1, p. 162).
In other words, it matters what we pay attention to. It matters what we give our focus to. It matters…
As St. Hesychios describes, the goal or point of our spiritual practice is, then, “to fix one’s gaze on heaven and to pay no attention to anything material.”
We hear this put another way in Matthew 6 and Luke 12: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Zacchaeus is a master of watchfulness in this text. He is risking his entire well-being to see Jesus, to really see him, and to be seen by him—even when he is rejected by those who only “see” this person Jesus wasting his time with “a sinner.”
His very name points at this reality: Zacchaeus, from Zacchai, meaning someone who is defined by his desire to be righteous, to do the right thing, to be pure…
Purity of heart…
At the very beginning, I said this sermon was about a man named Zacchaeus. The truth is this sermon is about us.
What do you see?
What are you looking for?
What do we see as a community?
What are we looking for, as we step into our 189th year of shared prayer and worship, compassion and community?
How are we being watchful in our day and time? It’s hard, to be sure, when we’re surrounding by a million voices and screens shouting at us and telling us what to pay attention to.
Yet, this is our practice, isn’t it? To be watchful. To pay attention…to see…with the eyes of our hearts rather than with the superficial eyes that only notice the flashy and sparkly things…
“He was trying to see who Jesus was.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 26, Year C
St. Luke 19:1-10
October 30, 2016