Saturday, December 31, 2016

Nativity ~ December 24, 2017

Sermon for Chistmas Eve
Year A ~  December 24, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Those who love me will keep my word, and my  
Father will love them, and we will come to them
 and make our home with them.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

That has always struck me as one of the most stupendous and mysterious phrases in all of Scripture. How can God move? God is everywhere — and nowhere. God is outside time and space. Motion means time. How can the infinite and eternal One move? It is beyond us, outside the capacity of rational consciousness. It remains a mystery. It is the mystery that we celebrate on this Most Holy Night. God’s moving: coming to make a home with us.
We must not restrict this mystery to the individual, inner, spiritual lives of “those who love.” This promise is, no doubt, true on that level, but it is also true on the interpersonal and cosmic level. Jesus promises that He and the Father will come to “make our home with them" in this world, in history, in this life. He does not promise to come and take us out of the world, but rather to “make our home with them” in this world.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a lot less moving around. In the period we call the Middle Ages, everybody pretty much stayed put — geographically, but also socially and economically. Mobility was not particularly desirable. All that began to change in the High Middle Ages, when the paradigm shifted and many began to think that there was some spiritual benefit in moving — at least temporarily. (They may have got this idea — pilgrimage — from the Muslims, who in any case had the idea before we did.) So people went crazy over pilgrimages: Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and — of course — Jerusalem.
The notion that one ought to move if one could, got deep into our consciousness. The whole capitalist system is based on motion: trading over as wide an area as possible. Worldwide exploration to expand the scope of trade, and imperial domination for the same purpose.
Eventually, many Europeans decided to leave home permanently, and to move to new places, in search of a better life — freedom from old constraints, but mostly for economic improvement. Perhaps more than any other country, our own United States of America is based on the idea of moving. Let’s remember that it became conventional to refer to those original English settlers as pilgrims.  As though there were something holy about their moving.
This became part of our American ideology: anyone with any ability, anyone “worth their salt”, would naturally want to leave home and go somewhere else to make a fortune. This was called ambition, which comes from a Latin word meaning walking around. In the Middle Ages, ambition was regarded negatively, but modern capitalism turned it into a virtue. “Go west young man.” Was the maxim of American expansion, without regard to the effect on the natural world or the genocide on  indigenous peoples. These were what we now call “external costs.”
Here the underlying modern theme of motion reaches the extreme. Paul Ehrlich, an early ecologist, rephrased our national maxim: not “go west young man,” but “foul your nest and move west!” Only now we can’t do that anymore. Oh, we can still foul our nest, all right, but now there is no place else to move to. No more “West” in that archetypical, imaginary sense of the land of limitless opportunity. Still the paradigm of the virtue of motion – our idea that moving is good –  persists, and causes conflict.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether the super-rich really want to take everything, because they recognize that pretty soon there will be big problems, but with enough money they could insulate themselves from the negative consequences of capitalism. With enough money, one could, presumably live in a fortified island of prosperity in the sea of increasing misery. Now, one actually hears that some super-rich people seriously think about pooling their resources to build a spaceship to take them away, once the world becomes uninhabitable, as a result of their rapacity!
This is the ultimate end of the motion-paradigm, of moving to better one’s self, of motion over stability: a voluntary exit from the world into perpetual motion in outer space. But such a project would amount to voluntary damnation. After all, what would those super-billionaires find on their spaceship, but other people who were all used to being on top? What do you think would happen then? “The Lord of the Flies,” that’s what. The billionaires would start fighting and kill one another, probably before they even got out of the solar system.
Motion, in the sense of getting out, leaving  home in the name of finding something better — even in the name of finding salvation — is deep in our consciousness, but it is a dead end. It is a horrible counterfeit of the only motion that can save us: God’s motion, God’s coming to us to make a home with us. Coming into the world, not leaving the earth. That is what we celebrate tonight.
God comes into our darkening world, but things are not instantly changed. Only a few recognize what is happening: the extremely poor, and the extremely wise, who are at the same time humble. But their recognition occurs in private. The immediate public effect of God’s Coming is disaster: atrocity, infanticide, the slaughter of the innocents. The Holy Family has to flee into Egypt as refugees. The darkness is not dispelled. Not right away. And yet the world is re-created. Silently, incognito, out of sight, hidden from the view of the powers of this dying world, unnoticed by the bemused and avaricious who would defile and then escape the world, God sets to work to save the world. That doesn’t mean that things are going to get better right away or any time soon. In fact, things may get a great deal worse, as we are about to find out in our own land. More injustice, more inequality, more misery and heartache, more “Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not.”
But tonight we celebrate hope: Hope that the increasing darkness will not be the end of the story. Hope that the raging tyrant will not have the last word. Not because we imagine that things are going to get better in our time, but because we believe that God is with us. This is the difference between optimism and hope. In our own present moment, when insane avarice seems to have taken over, the words of Karl Barth seem especially pertinent:

Between the rich and the poor heaven does not adopt a posture of neutrality. The rich can take care of their own future. God is on the side of the poor.

Emmanuel. Yes. God is with us. God is with the poor, who cannot afford to dream of escaping on a spaceship. God is also with the rich who are sufficiently wise to humble themselves and identify with the poor and move to where they are:  the rich who indeed get up and leave their own country, their own comfortable home of insulated peace, and journey far into the dangerous world, to find the Holy One, Who has come into the World, in order to deliver their riches to Him, so that He and His human Family may have the mans,  in turn, to get up and flee into Egypt, where they can find refuge until it is safe to return.
In the end, we can’t lose if we love the One born as on this night, for we have His promise:

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.



Advent IV ~ Year A ~ December 18, 2017

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 18, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Behold, a virgin shall conceive…

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Vigilance,  repentance, expectation are the themes of Advent.
·     Vigilance: waking up to what is happening in history, staying awake and keeping watch
·     Repentance Changing our mind,  a new consciousness about what is real, and living in accordance with it
·     Expectation: or gestation — the pregnancy of history, the fullness of time, the arrival of the Novum, the utterly new and unexpected.

Advent is a season of paradox:  expect the unexpected! The end of the world, in a New Birth. The world pregnant and about to bring forth the Promise, and the world unable to produce anything that can help itself. For the past couple of weeks I’ve emphasized the disconnection between salvation and natural processes — including the processes of the world and its history. But here we are on Advent IV adoring the most basic of natural cycles: human birth. As day follows night, as season follows upon season, as all the world renews itself by its natural processes, so — it seems — is Salvation born from the processes of nature. A young woman conceives and bears a child. What could be more natural?

Her pregnancy, however, is not natural at all. She Is a Virgin; she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. God has entered history to alter its processes, so that creation may coöperate in its own salvation, which is entirely God’s doing, and outside the natural order of things. The two English translations of the prophecy tell us something about our own underlying ideology and our difficulty with the paradox. The Hebrew word almah means not only a “young woman,” as rendered in our modern translation of Isaiah,  but it means, specifically, a “young unmarried woman.” A maiden as opposed to a matron. As in English, a maiden is assumed to be a virgin. In the ancient culture, if a young unmarried woman were not a virgin, she would be in a lot of trouble: she would not be marriageable, and she might be treated very badly, even killed. The connection between almah as “young woman” and almah as “a virgin" used to be so obvious that when Jewish scholars translated the passage into Greek a couple of centuries before Christ, they used the unambiguous Greek word parthenos, or virgin, which is why the Gospel, written in Greek, uses the term.  Our modern translators, I suspect, hesitate to make this connection due to current cultural preferences, but it is historically obvious. I would say, further, that it is quite important, and not simply incidental.

For the virginal maternity of Mary is not just a symbolic way to express God’s Incarnation; it is also the recognition that the natural processes of this world, by themselves,  cannot produce salvation. The Virginal conception of Jesus does not diminish His humanity, but it emphasizes the fact that creation cannot save itself. Salvation comes to the world from outside. God must intervene. The natural processes of the world have a role to play, as willing coöperator of God, but the fallen world has no power of itself to help itself. 

 So, the Advent theme of gestation recalls both natural process and divine act: God’s coming into history to redirect it and transform its end. The cycles of time and season, birth and death and birth again are not the Ultimate Reality. God is bringing them to an end— a glorious End.

And Joseph awoke from sleep. He took Mary as his wife, but she remained a virgin until she had borne her Son. And he named Him Jesus: [YHWH Saves]. For He will save His people from their sins.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent III ~ Year A ~ December 11, 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 11, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid…
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 

  +In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

The messianic peace seems unnatural to us: the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, children playing with deadly snakes, and so on. Arresting images, intentionally shocking, because it is so unnatural. Theologically speaking, however, this peace is not unnatural but preternatural. That means that what we think of as natural is really fallen nature or nature in its fallen state — outside the Garden. The Messiah will restore Creation as it was intended by God, and before human beings screwed it up.
Now, we don’t have to think of the Garden of Eden as literal pre-history in a paleonotological sense in order to accept the deep truth of the mythology. Somehow, the world is not as God intends it to be, and there is nothing we can do about it. The world cannot fix itself: it’s own inner processes — the ones we call “natural” — cannot evolve into anything better. The messianic peace comes from outside the world and its natural processes, the processes of its fallen nature. That is why the beloved images of Isaiah are so striking to us. They portray the world as it ought to be, not as we know it or even think it can be.
Above all, the healing of the world’s deformities means the healing of the perfection of God’s image on earth in the world:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
This is a promise of God’s intention for creation. These are the signs of the Advent of the Messiah, which is why Jesus pointed to them rather than testifying to Himself, when asked by John’s disciples whether or not He was the Messiah. He didn’t say “yes I am the Messiah;” but “look at what’s happening: judge for yourself whether the Messiah is among you.”
Vigilance, repentance, expectation or gestation: these Advent themes present another paradox: we are to watch, but also to work. To change our minds and forsake our sins means not passive waiting, but working to bear fruits worthy of repentance: working to build the highway in the wilderness for the coming Messiah. And although the world cannot produce its own healing, by its own natural processes, our expectation is, nevertheless, like the expectation of a pregnant woman. The new creation will be born of the old. But not in an entirely “natural” way — the expectant mother is a Virgin.


Advent II ~ Year A ~ December 4, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 4, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

In this world you will have trouble.
But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

The Gospel in which we say we hope is not reassuring for those who are looking for peace and comfort, “in our time”.  In our world and in our time, we will have trouble. The Messiah comes with conflict: tyrannical rage and mass infanticide. The Holy Family has to flee the country as refugees. The Godman promises to set family members against one another: not peace but division. The horror of crucifixion comes before resurrection. Everyone sees the Cross, only a handful see the Empty Tomb.
The Gospel has no worldly comfort to offer us. The one Jesus called the “greatest among those born of woman” — that is the greatest and holiest this world had produced — ends up with his head on a silver platter, a reward for a teenaged girl’s lustful entertaining of a tyrant.
John the Baptist represents all the God-inspired prophets who speak the truth to power. He appears in our iconography as a scruffy, unkempt, winged man. This indicates his ancient identification with Elijah, taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. The Prophet turned into a celestial being in his body. Elijah, who denounced tyrants in his own time, was widely expected to return as the forerunner of the Messiah. Christians identify John the Baptist as this heavenly Elijah.
Last week, the Holy Apostle Paul advised us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” and we heard from our Lord Himself, that we must stay awake, be vigilant,  because He will come “like a thief in the night,” that is, unexpected, and not as the result of any natural historical process. To stay awake means to “put on the armor of light” and to watch in hope.
Vigilance, repentance, and expectation or (gestation) are the themes of Advent. But holy vigilance is not passive waiting, and this week, we hear that Gospel hope means active repentance in the form of work to prepare the way of the Lord. Changing our mind is not enough. We have to bear fruits corresponding to our repentance.
As the forces of darkness, in the form of meaningless promises, lies, xenophobia, and bigotry of all kinds, seem to be getting the upper hand, it is not mere coincidence that forces of light make their appearance at Standing Rock. There gather people from all over the world, from all nations and peoples, led by the most oppressed of all, in the largest gathering of indigenous peoples ever to take place in North America, or anywhere, for that matter. The symbolism is striking:
·   the Missouri River, the centerpiece of the Louisiana purchase, which Pres. Jefferson got from Napoleon, doubling the size of the United States and ushering in our own Imperial period, which is now coming to an end.
·   Thomas Jefferson, who referred to the ancestors of the Protectors as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence.
·   The river where they gather calls to mind many of those “works of darkness” that we must “cast away.”
So the Standing Rock Protectors gather at the Missouri River to oppose the darkness of imperialism, white supremacy, greedy despoliation of creation, and the mindless lemming-rush of global-warming denial.
Those who gather with them “heed the words of the prophets and forsake their sins,” in the words of today’s Collect. We pray for the grace to do the same. Go to Standing Rock if you can. If not, do whatever you can do to support the effort. Do not imagine that we live in ordinary time. We are living in Advent — latter days — and the exalted peace Isaiah foresaw comes not without a struggle. As the forerunner said,

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent I - Year A - November 27, 2016

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  November 27, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness
 and put on the armor of light.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Vigilance, repentance, and birth — or, better, gestation — are the themes of Advent.
Christians are forward-looking people: people who expect redemption in the future. We expect redemption not only for ourselves, as persons, but for the world as a whole. Therefore, what happens in the history of this world is spiritually significant for us. Something that I predict will come to be seen as a major historical event is now taking place at Standing Rock.

Plenty of disasters happen in history. The Gospel does not promise otherwise: to struggle against the Prince of this World is to struggle against human sin and wickedness — spiritual wickedness in high places. We who believe the Gospel and hope in its promises are not surprised by the apparent triumph of those forces. Our hope, which the Epistle to the Hebrews calls the “evidence of things unseen,” is the assurance that such setbacks are but temporary. After all, our world is a world of darkness — or rather a world in which light struggles with darkness and all its works. Today, we hear the Apostle call us to cast aside those works and to put on “the armor of light.” As in any struggle, there will be setbacks, but the outcome is not in question: God has judged the world, made it right, re-created it.

Darkness and light — these images come straight out of Persia. It was the Zoroastrian Cyrus of Persia who restored the captive Jews to Zion. The Scripture calls him liberator and actually Messiah. “You are my Anointed though you do not know my Name." Zoroastrianism is a form of monotheism, with a strong emphasis on the struggle of light and darkness in this world. In the process of liberating the Jews, Cyrus had a very big influence on later Judaism, and hence upon early Christianity. 

This influence extended throughout the Roman Empire, to such an extent that Christianity’s biggest competitor in the first and second centuries was a universal religion called Mithraism. Mithra was a soldier in the army of Light, fighting the forces of darkness, in Zoroastrian tradition. No doubt Christianity picked up some of its themes. 

Advent is the season of gathering darkness. Each of the seasons of the Church year invites us to look at our own historical circumstance in a particular way. Right now, the darkness is gathering, but so are the forces of light. We must bear in mind that darkness is the absence of light, not its opposite. This is how we avoid the mistake of dualism, to which Zoroastrianism is sometimes compared. Christians say that Evil has no substance. The Light of God shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. There is no Power in the universe that can oppose God. God has no equal, and therefore no opposite. 

That is why, in our ancient mythology, it is the holy Archangel Michael who fights against the apostate angels. Lucifer  is opposite not to God, but to Michael. God has no opposite. To “cast away the works of darkness" is to oppose Lucifer with the “armor of light.”

The name, Lucifer, bearer of light, is therefore ironic: Lucifer is the angel who imagines himself to be an alternative source of light — just as much a source of light as God. Lucifer thinks that he bears light in himself, not merely as a reflection of the Divine Light. Lucifer insists that he is in his own right, like God. Michael opposes that pretension, asking derisively: “Who is like God?”.  Tat is what his name means. Michael is Lucifer’s opposite, not God. 

Like Michael, we are God’s instruments in opposing the Prince of this World. The old rite use to pray that the newly-baptized might “fight manfully under Christ’s banner against the world the flesh and the devil.” This prayer for a tiny, newborn infant usually elicited at least some giggles. But it is not a joke.

The ultimate instrument of God’s Liberation is the Cross: the tool of ultimate, imperial evil, the worst thing that the Prince of this World could do. Jesus Christ has turned that pinnacle of evil into ultimate good. The strongman has been bound, and his house despoiled — his slaves set free. He writhes around kicking in fury, his death throes unleash destructive power; and they can inflict a great deal of damage. But in the end there is no question of his winning. The Prince of this World has been defeated.

We believe in this Gospel and hope in its promise; we do not hope in the natural processes of this world to bring forth the Kingdom. The Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, that is, when we least expect it, and not as a result of the natural fruition of the world’s own internal processes. Our calling is to expect His Coming always — to stay awake during the night and watch, clothed in the armor of light. While the Prince flails around, not knowing what he’s doing or that he is doomed, we are called to stay awake to the fact that we are no longer his subjects, but heirs of the promise.

As the forces of darkness, in the form of meaningless, lying promises, xenophobia, and bigotry of all kinds, seem to be getting the upper hand, it is not mere coincidence that forces of light make their appearance at Standing Rock. There gather people from all walks of life from all over the world, from all nations and peoples, led by the most oppressed of all, in the largest gathering of indigenous peoples ever to take place in North America, or anywhere. The symbolism is profound: the Missouri River, the centerpiece of the Louisiana purchase, which Pres. Jefferson got from Napoleon, doubling the size of the United States and ushering in our own Imperial period, which is now coming to an end. Thomas Jefferson, who referred to the ancestors of the Protectors as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence. The river where they gather calls to mind many of those “works of darkness” that we must “cast away.” So the Standing Rock Protectors gather at the Missouri River to oppose the darkness of imperialism, white supremacy, greedy despoliation of creation, and the mindless lemming-rush of global-warming denial.

To stay awake means to “put on the armor of light” and to watch in hope, but that does not mean passive waiting. Gospel hope means repentance, and work to prepare the way of the Lord, which we will consider next week.


All Saints' Sunday - November 6, 2016

Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints’
Year C ~  November 6, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

One thing have I asked of the Lord and that alone I seek: 
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord.  

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Well, I think it’s time for a philosophical riddle: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, is there any sound?. It all depends on how you define sound: in one sense there isn’t any, because sound is a perception that occurs in the brain. Still, no one would deny that there are sound waves, would they?
By analogy, beauty is real and its reality is independent of any perception of it, just as the sound waves are real in the uninhabited forest. One hears that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That is only partially true, and in its partiality it is misleading and even false. It is all that the experience of beauty can be to a philosophical materialist, that is to those who acknowledge no reality beyond what the senses can perceive.
Materialism rules out a priori  the notion that there is such a thing as Unseen Reality According to this presupposition, this commitment of faith, beauty can only be in the eye of the beholder. There is no such thing as Beauty in Reality,  independent of the human experience.
I find it interesting that many philosophers of science are nevertheless happy to admit that new theories of reality are sometimes preferred over others, some solutions of mathematical problems over others, because they are “more elegant” sometimes scientists even  openly describe them as more “beautiful.” What, then, is this scientific criterion of beauty, if not a recognition that it is objective, and not merely a subjective, non-rational experience?
Following the Greeks, especially Plato, Christianity inclines toward the view that Beauty is real, as God is real, because Beauty is of God’s essence, independent of human experience. Furthermore, the Saints are perfectly beautiful because they reflect the beauty of God. As an early Church Father put it The Glory of God is a Living human being. Beauty is real, as God is Real.
The beauty of nature reflects the beauty of God, too. That is why we rejoice in it yet at the same time we experience a sense of longing: a longing to unite with it which can feel like an erotic longing to possess it. Whenever I experience something really beautiful — like a passage of my favorite music, or a perfect autumn day with its display of created glory, or any of the other echoes of Divine    Reality that surround us — I feel longing. We are told by our spiritual masters that this phenomenon is longing for God. When I am moved to tears of longing over a piece of music or an autumn day, it is because I have experienced, momentarily, the Glory of God, and felt my own separation from it. I think the same is true when I nearly weep at the sight of Pope Francis.
Which brings me to the celebration of All Saints Sunday. For, above all other characteristics, the Saints are beautiful. What is more beautiful than the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the hungry for justice, and even those who mourn? Since what they mourn is suffering and death, which God has come to destroy in the person of His Son? Is not their mourning a longing for God? Are not their tears of repentance, that is expressions of the intense longing that comes upon us when our consciousness is ravaged by Divine Beauty, when our mind is changed in that terrible way?
These, then, are the Saints. Today we celebrate all of them, unknown as well as known. The great saints, the famous ones remembered officially by the Church together with the much greater number of incognito saints, are all reflections of Divine Beauty, of the ineffable Reality that surrounds us. As Dostoyevsky’s character remarks, the great tragedy of our life is that a paradise of beauty blooms around us and we fail to see it. Or, as Leon Bloy’s title character in The Woman Who Was Poor remarks in the last line of the book, “the only tragedy is that we are not all saints.”
True enough, but it is true because we are all called to be saints, and we have every reason to hope that we all shall be. Today’s observance reminds us of that, and that as we are surrounded by the Paradise of Beauty, so we are surrounded by that “great cloud of witnesses, whom no one could number” — the unknown, hidden holy ones, who have become like God, who through Beholding the Divine Beauty have “been conformed to the Beauty gazed upon”, and made partakers of Divine Life.
Those who have tried to tell of this experience have offered the analogy of a piece of iron heated by fire. The iron’s nature is thoroughly transformed into the nature of fire, as it glows red and then white-hot, without ceasing to be iron. So, we hope, is the life of human consciousness, utterly transfigured in the Divine Beauty of the Beloved.
The LORD is glorious in the saints.

Text Box: +

Pentecost 24 - Proper 26C - October 30, 2016

Sermon for The Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 26  ~  October 30, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

He was trying to see who Jesus was,
but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Operating on the ancient theory that almost no detail in holy Scripture is insignificant let’s look at some details in today’s Gospel:
1.    the significance of Jericho,
2.    the significance of Zacchaeus’s name,
3.    the fact that he was short,
4.    Jesus’s call to him.

A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that Jericho was a pretty rich city, owing to the lucrative balsam trade, and tax-collectors would’ve been quite rich indeed. Jericho was also in the nearest town to the winter residence of Herod the Great. Below sea level, near the place where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea, it is always warm, and in the summer dreadfully hot. The proximity of the Royal Palace would also be good for business. Finally, modern archaeology awards Jericho the title of the oldest continuously-inhabited town on earth. There are signs of unbroken settlement going back to the seventh century B.C. So, Jericho could be taken to represent all of human civilization. There are also archaeological signs of the destruction of the city walls at about the time of Joshua! So Jericho could also be taken as a symbol for human obduracy, futile resistance to the will of God.
Zacchaeus means pure. In some Christian traditions, he is taken as a figure for those who, though defiled, are made pure by the grace of God. They do take some initiative themselves, as Zacchaeus did by climbing the Sycamore tree, apparently out of curiosity and because he was short and he knew that he would not see anything unless he climbed. In a way, like Zacchaeus, we are all of diminutive stature, spiritually speaking, and we must take some initiative to climb up higher if we would see God. So, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He didn’t know Who Jesus was, and the Gospel said he wanted to. He had no idea of what his seeing would entail. Neither do we. But it proved to be costly to Zacchaeus. He wanted to “see who Jesus was.” He did, and it changed his life. If we spiritual midgets “see who Jesus is,” it changes ours too.
For Jesus called him by name and invited Himself to dinner and, presumably, overnight accommodation. Jesus already knew who he was: that he was rich, and that he was much-despised because of the source of his wealth: collaboration with the Romans in collecting taxes. People grumbled because Jesus favored him, and not them, with an overnight visit.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Not impossible, but very difficult. What IS impossible is for less-rich persons to enter the Kingdom, as long as they delight in the spiritual difficulties of the rich. There is a certain spiritual luxury in that delight — a kind of wallowing in imaginary spiritual riches — a delight that is one of the seven deadly sins, right up there with avarice: envy. It is related to our feelings of relief that we are not like the Pharisee of last week’s Gospel. That sense of relief is actually envy. Contrary to popular usage, envy is not the desire to have what another has, but the desire to deprive the other of it and to take pleasure in the other’s downfall. Delight in the misfortune of another is envy, including delight in the spiritual delusion of the Pharisee. Dejection or anger at the of the good fortune of another is also envy, exemplified by the grumbling residence of Jericho at the good fortune of Zacchaeus. We who delight in the words of Isaiah about God’s disgust at the ritual offerings of the rich need to be real careful here! Because envy is just as bad as avarice – the inordinate love of riches.
So we have to consider the camel and the needle’s eye alongside Zacchaeus in the Sycamore. He was rich. Not only was he rich, he had become so, apparently, by dishonesty and collaboration with the foreign occupation. As long as he stayed as he was, he was sunk. But something caused him to want to see Jesus, and since he was short, he climbed the tree. Whatever motivated him to do that also motivated him to volunteer to pay any ill-gotten gains back fourfold and to give half of the rest to the poor. In other words, he was willing to do what he could to purify himself, and to make himself fit to be Jesus’s host. Even after he gave up half of his wealth, he would probably still be pretty rich, but that promise was enough for Jesus to observe that salvation has come to this house.
This incident comes right after the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, which we heard last week. It continues the gospel’s insistence that those who judge by appearances are in for unpleasant surprises. As God says in Isaiah, My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. The crowd who condemned Zacchaeus judged him to be a sinner. And it sounds like he was. But contact with Jesus changed his mind — caused him to repent. Notice that Jesus didn’t tell him he had to give back his riches, he volunteered that as soon as Jesus asked him for hospitality. The rich who learn how to use their riches well are not condemned, but those who condemn them are on thin ice. Envy is as bad as avarice.
What brought Zacchaeus to repentance, to the desire to serve God by offering hospitality? According to today’s Collect, it was grace. The grace that “goes before” any righteous action of our own. “It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” Jesus called  Zacchaeus by name, just as He calls each of us by name at our baptism. And by this Divine grace, Zacchaeus was changed, purified so that he could live out the significance of his name and offer God true and laudable service.

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