Sunday of Zaccheus

Sermon preached on Sunday, January 31, 2010

Luke 19:1-10 (15th Sunday of Luke)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God.  Amen.

The Lord does not see things as we do. We like to categorize people, but Jesus did not. That is why he could go to Zaccheus’ house and not blink an eye while folks in the crowd criticized and complained. That is why he consorted with prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and women and remained perfectly at ease. For Jesus there were not bad people and good people, there were simply people. The way of thinking that breaks everything into categories - blacks and whites, goods and bads, righteous and sinners, men and women, Jews and Gentiles - is called dualistic thinking. Jesus was not a dualistic thinker. We should not be either, but we do it all the time.

St. Paul learned to be content in every situation – in prison and out, comfortable and uncomfortable, loved and hated. One thing that marks a saint is that they are unmoved by praise or criticism, good times or bad times. It is a sign of great holiness to be able to embrace all things as they are, as Paul did, with equanimity - unswayed by the winds of change and the vicissitudes of life. After all, Zaccheus did not know what Jesus would say or do when the two met for lunch at his home that day. He may have had a vague hope that he might escape unscathed, but he did not know for sure. He simply invited the Lord and embraced his own uncertainty.

There is a beautiful story of a Korean monk during a time of civil war who was threatened by a certain general. All the people in his village had fled at the advance of the general’s troops. The monk alone remained. When the general approached him and found him calm and unmoved, he grew angry he said, “Do you not know who I am? I am the one who can run you through without batting an eye.” The monk looked at him and replied, “And I, sir, am the one who can be run through without batting an eye.” This is extreme equanimity. The ability to meet every moment with whatever it brings with a calm and observant mind, focused like a fine point. The freedom to respond with wisdom in the face of fear or joy is one of the benefits of non-dualistic thinking.

Every situation bears within it a spiritual reality, a window into deeper truths, a doorway into the mysteries of God, but we must train our minds and eyes to see it. Remember what Jesus said about the eye being the lamp of the body? If the eye is good, then the body will be filled with light, but if not, then the body will be filled with darkness. The eye refers not to the physical eye here, but the way we see, the way we perceive and interpret reality. St. Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18 that the eyes of their understanding will be enlightened. Jesus, like Paul, is also referring to “the eye of understanding” known in Orthodox spiritual literature as the eye of the soul or the nous.

If the eye of understanding is to be enlightened, then the mind and the heart must be cleansed of sin, of evil, of darkness, of fear and of ignorance. The goal is to create a heart of passionlessness and of interior purity. Only the pure in heart will see God. Cleansing the eyes of understanding allows the light that is in us, the effulgence of the divine image, to shine brightly. That light will illuminate not only us, but all that is around us and we will recognize that God’s light is shining, and always has been, everywhere. “In thy light we shall see light.”

Today is the Feast of St. Antony the Great who lived in the desert of the Sinai for forty three years. He went to fight the good fight, that is, to cleanse his mind and heart of darkness. After many years of struggle the eyes of his understanding were enlightened and with a pure heart he saw God. Once, after a long period of time struggling with demons in the cell he made in an ancient tomb, a light shown down from heaven. St. Antony, knowing it to be the presence of God, complained, “Where have you been?” The answer came, “I was here all along.” The pure in heart rest always in this truth unmoved, like a clear, untroubled pool.

There is a documentary called “Extreme Pilgrim” the third part of which is about ascetic Christianity. In it an Anglican priest, Fr. Peter Owen Jones, follows in the footsteps of St. Antony the Great from the tomb where he first sought solitude to the mountains of Sinai where the saint lived in a cave for many years. There Fr. Jones meets a modern-day ascetic in the tradition of St. Antony by the name of Fr. Lazarus. Fr. Lazarus invites him to live in his cave, which is not far from St. Antony’s, for three weeks while the old monk went further up the mountain to another cave for the duration of the priest’s stay. Before the two part company, Fr. Lazarus instructs him in the ascetic life and speaks to him about what he might encounter in the desert. Here are a few of his words.

“The kind of prayer we pray is an interior dialogue.”

“If you stay here for long and try to pray with faith and love, Satan will attack you.”

“One hour of prayer mindful of God is greater than a lifetime of beneficent service.”

“In me all mankind lives, so if I pray all mankind prays. If I don’t pray, all mankind turns from God…So, if you think like this, if you see yourself as the iconic embodiment of humanity, standing before God, you will pray because you will be terrified not to. You will achieve pardon for yourself and for others. This is the guarantee of the desert.”

This is the cosmic, singular vision of Christian mysticism: prayer as the most beneficent service, ascetic labor as spiritual warfare on behalf of all, devotion to the idea of the absolute connection of all human beings and, indeed, of all living things, with the overarching motivation being an intense desire to be one with God and to deify all humanity in oneself. The motivation of extreme, unselfish love. As Patriarch IGNATIOS famously said, when we are baptized we are not immersed only for ourselves, but for all humanity.

The cleansing action of the desert, whether a real one like Sinai or the virtual ones we experience day in and day out comes for the cleansing of our eyes of perception and for the salvation of all. A radical change of mind from dualistic to singularity takes place as purity of heart grows. The singular, focused, undisturbed mind: the mind of Christ.

The mission of Christ, “the son of man came to seek and save the lost”, is the mission of those who pray, like St. Antony and Fr. Lazarus, in silence as it is for all those who are pure and single in mind.