Sermon for October 31, 2010, Sts. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church, Portland, OR
Text: So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. (Luke 19:4)
When I was a boy I loved to climb trees. We had two pine trees in our back yard, and one of them I could only climb up maybe five feet or so, but in the other, larger one I could get at least ten or twelve feet off the ground, which was pretty high for a ten year old kid! How fondly I remember my clothes and limbs covered with dust when I would finally descend from the branches. Even having to pull out the occasional splinter was worth the joy of bonding with that tree.
Climbing a tree always gave me a new perspective; I would climb it for fun, or I would do it to get away from it all, or even just to think through my homework. I suppose I was also trying to avoid doing my homework, but I never really thought about it in those terms!
In today’s Gospel, Zacchaeus the tax collector does precisely this: he climbs the Sycamore tree to get a new perspective on Christ. He’s not satisfied with the rumors and hearsay about Jesus. He wants to see for himself. But he’s not a very big guy, either physically or socially. No one is going to do any favors for Zach. So he takes matters in his own hands, and up the tree he goes. And once he does, — guess what? Not only does he see Jesus, but Jesus sees him. Jesus calls to him. And out of this encounter, Jesus comes to visit Zacchaeus’s home, and Zacchaeus is forever transformed. I think the Sycamore Tree is the unsung hero of the Zacchaeus tale. It has been relegated to the status of whimsy in a children’s song. But without that tree, the encounter between Jesus and the tax collector might never have happened.
Indeed, if we take a step back and look at the entire history of our faith, we will notice that trees appear again and again, always at some sort of pivotal moment in the story of our ongoing relationship with God.
We remember, of course, the two great trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Keep in mind also that the Tree of Life reappears at the other end of the Bible, when Zion is transformed into the Heavenly or New Jerusalem, with none other than that great tree at its very center. And let us not forget the tree that was felled so that its wood could be used to build the cross — the “tree” on which Our Lord hung, as he suffered and died. For that matter remember that Jesus and Joseph were carpenters, which means that trees provided the raw material by which they earned their daily bread.
In fact, that’s true for many of us, even today. Trees give us the material by which we live and work. As an author, I am reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh, who in his books asks his readers to give thanks for the trees that died to make the paper on which his words are printed. Perhaps in our day of Kindles and other ebook readers, this is changing, but at least for the moment, so many of the words we read come to us on paper made from the wood of a tree.
When I think about the spirituality of trees, I also cannot help but think about the great wisdomkeepers of Ireland, Scotland and Wales: the Celts. Today, of course, is October 31, or Hallowe’en — but it is also Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival marking the end of summer and indeed the end of the year. Samhain was a day for honoring the ancestors, and if we honor our Celtic ancestors, we remember that they had a particular devotion to trees. This is true not only of the pagan Celts, but even of the earliest Celtic Christians. For example, St. Brigit made her home in Kildare, a name that means “The Church of the Oak.” In Kildare archaeologists have discovered the foundation of a temple where nineteen sisters of Brigit tended an eternal flame. Just a short walk from this site are two holy wells which remain, to this day, sites of sacred pilgrimage for Christians and Pagans alike.
For the ancient Celts, what the sacred flame, the holy well, and the great tree all had in common was their function as portals, or doorways, between the worlds. Fire transforms, water flows, and trees reach high. Each of these, in their own way, signify the alchemy of the human spirit as it is transformed, flows into, and reaches for the very heart of God.
I would be remiss if I did not also tip my metaphorical hat to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and their great mystical tree: The Tree of Life within the Kabbalah. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a symbol which represents the various stages of reality, or consciousness, that form a sort of creational continuum between the unspeakable splendor of God and the ordinary reality of human awareness. “Climbing the Kabbalistic Tree” is therefore a metaphor or a symbol for the transformations of human consciousness that take place as we seek to “put on the mind of Christ,” which is how Saint Paul describes the journey of inner transformation.
I would like to suggest a metaphor for us to explore this morning. I invite you to join with me in thinking about the great trees of the spiritual world — whether we are talking about the Jewish Tree of Life, the Celtic Oak Tree of Brigit, the World Tree, Yggdrasil of Norse Mythology, the Cross of Christ, or even the humble Sycamore Tree that Zacchaeus climbed: all these trees function as symbols of the human body itself. We stand, our feet planted on the ground and our hands and eyes reaching for the stars. We are creatures of clay animated with the Breath of God. So like these great trees, we stand between the worlds, the worlds of ordinary reality and the always-transforming splendor of our Triune God.
The philosopher Rudolf Eucken said that humanity “is the meeting point of various stages of reality.” In other words, we are, like the great trees of Celtic mythology, the link between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of the cosmos.
This, then, is why I commend to you the practice of Christian spirituality: of lectio divina, or meditative reading of the Bible; of meditation itself, thoughtful reflection on the great mysteries of our faith, and the summit of our spirituality, contemplation, the practice of allowing all thoughts and distractions to gently rise and fall within the greater silence that is our most natural ground of being. When we enter into meditation or contemplation, we are symbolically “climbing the tree” of our own minds and hearts, and in doing so, we reach a new perspective, a new vantage point, a new place where it is possible to encounter the Risen Lord — but, even more important, where Christ encounters us. And in this encounter, he asks to come into our lives, our homes, and leaves us forever transformed.
The great German mystic Meister Eckhart said: “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” This, then, is the heart of contemplation: I gaze at God, and God gazes at me. This is brought about because we climb the tree of contemplation, where, from a new and higher vantage point, this encounter with the Holy is made possible. And when we return from the height of our inner tree, we find that our lives have been changed forever. And out of this change, we are empowered to truly and lovingly serve others.
So on this Hallowe’en Day, I hope that each of us will take time to reflect on Zacchaeus and his sycamore tree. Give thanks for the trees in your life, whether living are dead. From paper to furniture to floors to cabinets, our lives are filled with the gift of trees. So consider this, and give thanks. But give particular thanks for the trees that are alive, the living, sentient beings that bless us with their fruit, and their shade, their roots that stabilize our soil, and most important of all, their oxygen. And finally, consider the sacred tree that you can find within the theater of your spiritual imagination, where you are invited to climb to a new vantage point where, like Zacchaeus, you may see, and encounter, and be encountered by, the One who can change your life with love with truth and goodness and beauty. For after all, it is in his name that we gather today, for the great feast in which he is both priest and victim. Amen.