Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 3, 2008
Zaccheus was hated by his neighbors. He was a tax collector. He cheated the people to profit himself. Though small in stature he had a big ego. Big egos often come in small packages. Still I am pretty sure he was not all bad and that some of the stories his neighbors told were far worse than the reality. His first step toward freedom came in the form of climbing a tree. In fact, Zaccheus was good down deep as all people are. Jesus knew this and went out of his way to make something significant happen that day.
The point about the ego came home to me just the other day. I was a bit depressed about the slings and arrows that have come my way recently when I heard my wife call out to me, "It's your ego, Antony, just your ego. Get over it!"
Another significant point in the Gospel needs to addressed. The enemies of Zaccheus are revealed also as the enemies of Jesus. "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!" Whenever we set ourselves against our neighbor we are setting ourselves against their Maker. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor.
We all have equal value in the sight of God because we all share the most important things in common: we exist, we are sustained each moment in our existence by a loving God and we are each one made in God's image. There is treasure buried in every human being. The spiritual life is all about finding that treasure, multiplying and using it. St. Isaac of Syria writes:
Be at Peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is one single door to them both. (St. Isaac of Syria)
The "treasure house that is within you." What a beautiful saying!
That is where the gifts common to all human beings are to be found. It
is the goal of the Orthodox life to find that door and to enter it for
as we just read the door to that treasure house and the door to heaven
are the same door. "The Kingdom of heaven is within you." And the way
to find that treasure, according to St. Isaac, is to "be at peace with
your own soul."
St. Augustine writes: "Where can we find Him?...Not on earth, for He is not here. And not in heaven, for we are not there. But in our own hearts we can find Him. He ascended to heaven openly so that He could come back to us inwardly, and never leave us again."
The door is difficult to find because we are so often not at peace or when we are we give it up too easily. A little slight, a small offense, an inconvenience, any tiny thing can set us off and rob us of the peace within that is the key to heaven. The ego, that great adversary, cannot bear peace for long. The ego feeds on everything that is opposed to peace and it deceives us so easily making us believe that our self-centeredness really constitutes a holy crusade! We come to believe that a piece of dung is a nugget of gold.
Let's look a moment at anger. It may begin innocently! We may feel ourselves justified in our anger. But anger is a red, hot fire that will eventually devour everything in its path. It enters the mind like yeast and overwhelms the heart like cancer. Once it finds a foothold it sets up camp and builds ever more impregnable defenses. Anger constantly invents new weapons, new schemes and new strategies. It metastasizes invading more and more of the inner landscape until it conquers all with the goal of making Sherman's "March to the Sea" look like a walk in the park. At its inception anger starts as a little blow to the ego sometimes no larger than a tiny cut or a mosquito bite, but the ego cannot bear even a tiny injury. Every slight is huge. Every bruise is life-threatening. The ego is hypersensitive. To the ego there are only two things, praise or threat, nothing in-between and one can turn into the other like the flip of a switch. The vital ability to make subtle judgments becomes desperately impaired and everything becomes either black or white. In such a state it is impossible to make wise choices or to discern God's will. Anger makes us believe that our will and God's are one and the same. But why can we not see that anger against others is a cause of our own suffering? What is the point of causing and enduring such needless suffering on others and pain ourselves? It is the way the ego works. That is all. When we begin to suffer like that, then we should know immediately that we are on the wrong track and that we have made ourselves the enemy of God and neighbor.
"If you fall, rise quickly," the Holy Fathers say.
If we rise quickly, then the infection can be stopped. If not, then we are lost. Has someone offended you? Watch carefully that you do not fall into sin! It is better not to fall at all, but this takes great skill, skill that we can learn how to develop and nurture. "Meet your enemy at the gate," is one of the prescriptions from The Philokalia. See the small wound and treat it with compassion before it gets infected. Stop the snowball before it starts rolling down hill. Then the ravages of anger, or lust, or greed or jealousy cannot draw on life's energy and steal the gift God has given. When we are at peace we should know that we have found the treasure. Once found we must not easily let it go. Guard the peace and then watch it grow!
If you do not strive, you will not find; and if you do not knock eagerly at the door and keep long vigil before it, you will not receive an answer. ( St. Isaac of Syria)It is as if we are all like the man in the Gospel who took his talent and hid it in the ground. "If we do not strive", then we are like that man. Our essential goodness, the image of God lies buried in us. If we do not find it, our treasure will not grow. The first thing is to realize it is there. The second is to move heaven and earth to find it like the pearl of great price and the widow and her lost coin. Yes, we can lean how to do this. Upon finding the treasure, we can put it to use. How? By sharing it with others. If we share love, love increases. If we share peace, peace increases. It is a matter of finding the treasure house learning to make the wise choice of sharing the beautiful things that are in us.