Homily for 2013 CTA Conference
November 3, 2013
Gospel: Luke 19: 1-10
Does anyone have a sycamore tree? Leave it to the CTA Liturgy Team to bring the Gospel to life by inviting the “Zacchaea” of homilists to speak with you from behind this massive podium!
How many of us CTAers can also relate to this man who fears that he has a challenge that might separate him from what he sees as an answer to his spiritual hunger. For Zacchaeus, it’s his lack of stature, which makes it impossible for him to see Jesus through the crowds around him. For us, it may be being seen as too liberal, too feminist, too outspoken, not sufficiently attentive to official teaching. We may carry a label like undocumented, divorced and remarried, transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, Latina/Latino, Black, Asian, old, young, dis-abled, uneducated, poor, ill, lay, cleric, religious, single-parent, parent of an LGBT kid, non-Catholic, or something else that might set the crowd of those close to Jesus to grumbling. Like Zacchaeus, we, too feel that yearning to be seen and embraced for who we truly are. Many of us have done our own version of tree-climbing, exposing our vulnerabilities, finding ways to overcome the barrier, in order to have a relationship with Jesus. How thrilled we are when we get that call to share the sacred meal!
And like Zacchaeus, many of us have justified our right to be part of the crowd by showing just how well we understand the Gospel, demonstrating how we strive to show mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. All of this is good and right, and we certainly must continue our task of making the community that is the Church a reflection of the expansive openness and boundless love of our God.
But, as I prayed and reflected on this Gospel, I found that two challenges in it that were more difficult, at least for me, and, I suspect this may be true for many of us gathered here.
The first was to flip the story so that rather than identifying as Zacchaeus, we stand in the place of Jesus. After all, as we are so often reminded, we, the baptized, the living Body of Christ, are the face, the hands and feet, the heart of Christ in our world today. We are to be the response to today’s spiritual hungers and human needs. And yet, I wonder, how aware are we of the Zacchaeuses in our lives? How often do we walk comfortably with our own crowd, failing to look up, and see the folks in the trees yearning to make a connection to something sacred? How well do we get beyond the initial impression to understand the need with which we are presented? Are we able to respond to the need, no matter who is putting it forth?
I must confess that I have long found Zacchaeus a pretty distasteful character. I kind of sided with the crowd, resenting Zacchaeus as a man who enriched himself by collaborating with an occupying government, squeezing taxes from the people to support their own oppression. In sitting with this story, however, Pope’s Francis question “Who am I to judge?” took on new meaning. Jesus did not respond to Zacchaeus’ lack of stature or his exploitive tendencies—the two characteristics deemed most significant by the author of the Lucan Gospel--or at least these factors did not become what defined the relationship. Jesus was able to recognize a human being with a profound need, and that is what he addressed in Zacchaeus. It was humbling to come face to face with my own biases, and to recognize that there are likely many times in the course of a day or a week I may not see a need that I am called on to address. The crowd surrounding Jesus certainly gave him many opportunities to heal, to teach, to comfort, to inspire. And yet, Jesus called out to a person beyond the margins, someone on an entirely different plane, a person who clearly did not fit in to the pack because it was that person who needed who he was and what he, uniquely, was able to offer.
Throughout this weekend, we have heard incredible testimonies from speakers whose ministry does not look like the Church we tend to envision when we say “Catholic.” We’ve heard from Adam Bucko about helping kids living on the street find their passions rather than being forced into programs designed to help them fit into molds that are comprehensible to a dominant culture. Our amazing panel speakers stretched the definition and locale of “ministry” in ways that create both amazing opportunities for us to claim our rightful place as ministers of the Gospel, and unmanageable challenges for any institution that tries to confine these energies. And Sr. Miriam Therese Winter that our starting point is the Divine Spirit within us, and we must let that sacred energy of love and compassion spiral outward. Those spirals touch a whole lot of different kinds of people!
This is our call as the baptized, the beloved of God--to attend to the cries of those in need, whatever that need may be, no matter how different or unlikable or challenging the people crying out may be. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus is breathtaking—he doesn’t comment on Zacchaeus’ job or his proclamation about making restitution. He emphasizes their commonality: “You too are a child of Sarah and Abraham.” Their basic humanity and connection is enough to give Zacchaeus a claim on Jesus. And that is all anyone needs to present to us in order for us to be called to minister.
The second challenge I saw in this Gospel was that there needs to be a figure or a place that is inspirational enough to cause people with profound needs to believe they can find help. Zacchaeus wouldn’t have humiliated himself if he didn’t have real hope that Jesus would provide what he lacked. On a recent videoconference discussing their experiences, our World Youth Day pilgrims told about people who so fervently desired to be part of the Papal Mass on the crowded beach in Rio de Janeiro that they waited in the Atlantic Ocean for hours, and then participated in the liturgy from the waves. Isn’t that a great current parallel to Zacchaeus’s scrambling up his sycamore tree for even a momentary glimpse of Jesus? How often, as Catholics, do we find people putting faith in our Church to such a degree?
The reality is that, rather than drawing people to it because of the healing, care, and nourishment it offers, our Church—we—are too often sending people away empty. Or worse than empty—damaged. This is happening in astonishing and tragic numbers. We all know it, we’ve experienced it in our families and among our friends, perhaps we ourselves have only the most tenuous of relationships with the Church as it is typically conceived.
Once again, this weekend is a source of redirection and confrontation. Living our Baptismal call as Catholics means that our Church must be the light that beckons those in darkness, the balm that heals those who are broken, and the food that satisfies everyone who is hungry. And if we are the Church, as we so often say we are, and as we truly are, it is our duty and responsibility to make this reality come to pass. Can we do that in a Church where fear restricts authentic ministry? I don’t think that we can.
So living our Baptismal call in our day, in our Church may well mean transforming the very notion of Catholicism, freeing it from the structures and features that currently define it in our own minds and in popular conception. The structures that used to provide shelter now imprison us and create barriers between people, deafening us too often to the cries our hearts would so freely answer. The things that once lifted people out of misery now try to keep too many of us in a place that someone has deemed “appropriate,” but a place that we know in our hearts is not the home we deserve. If we are to live our Baptismal call, and truly be the Body of Christ in the world, we must remember that the crowds will grumble, and the powers that be will be threatened, and there may be heavy prices to be paid. But our sacred duty to the other beloved children of God is what must direct our actions.
Zacchaeus is no longer just a short, rich man desperate enough to climb a tree for a fleeting encounter with Jesus. Today, he represents our call to refocus our sense of ministry, of Church, of Baptism, of community so that they are defined not by a set of doctrines or even a sacramental system, but by the degree to which we see and respond to those most in need. That is a Church built of love, and a Church that will draw people to it, people of all ages, identities and beliefs, a Church where the only label that matters is beloved Child of God.