Welcome to the New World


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA

This is the Sunday of Zaccheus. Great Lent is near. What should we look for? Let’s see what Zaccheus can teach us.

Zaccheus lived in a world of his own dominated by fear and greed, by hatred and suspicion. He lied and cheated to survive and to prosper at the expense of others. He was hated and despised by his neighbors and he returned the favor. He must have despised himself as well, for only those who do mistreat others. If we do not love ourselves, our true, godly, beautiful self, then we cannot love God or neighbor.

Jesus invites Zaccheus to enter a new world, not with words, but with the energy of his presence. The Lord introduces him to a new way of seeing and a new way of being, to a world without fear and a world of unconditional acceptance simply by asking to come over for lunch. This world we call “the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus walked into the house of Zaccheus he acted as a mirror. In the clear and unclouded face of Christ Zaccheus saw his true self. Jesus, True God and True Man, showed Zaccheus the True Man that was hidden within him. “Deep calls out to deep,” as the Psalmist wrote and the remarkable change in Zaccheus we see recorded in the scripture was actually Zaccheus discovering both God in front of him and God’s image within him perhaps for the very first time. The search for God and the True Self are always simultaneous.

The secret beauty in the Wizard of Oz occurs when we see the man behind the curtain. Behind the smoke and flames and gimmickry of the great throne room (the ego) lays the one behind it all. And when Toto pulls back the curtain a little, he has the Great Wizard proclaim, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Of course, that is exactly who we should pay attention to. Suddenly the Great and Powerful Oz is revealed to be a slightly ridiculous old charlatan and soon after that is becomes wise! That’s how it works.

And note that Jesus demands nothing of Zaccheus. He asks only to be able to share a meal with him in his own house. And this was not just a meal. We know that sharing a meal with someone, particularly in Middle Eastern culture, is an intimate event. Sharing a meal in Semitic culture means “I want to know you. I want to befriend you.” Jesus chose Zaccheus to be his friend. The Lord accepted him as he was without precondition and his only agenda was to love him.

And Zaccheus repents. He lets go of the fearful, greedy person with whom he has identified and “the man behind the curtain appears.” This is a wonderful example of the truth that spiritual growth does not come from addition, but rather from subtraction. Not by holding on, but by letting go.

He makes restitution and not because Jesus commanded it, but because his heart opened and mercy poured out. Not because he was trying to impress Jesus or be worthy of his visitation, but because Zaccheus began to see himself as God sees.

The light of Christ illuminated the darkness in him and he was filled with God’s radiance and the Lord’s unconditional love for him broke his heart.

Let me quote the amazing Brennan Manning here, “...the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence.”  There is another paradoxical truth revealed here, it is that the light shines brightest in the darkness.

What happened that day was sacred and sacramental, in fact it was Eucharist. The Lord shared himself. Zaccheus responded and that is communion. Jesus demanded nothing and asked nothing and maybe even said nothing (we don’t know), to evoke this awakening. The energetic power of his presence was enough. Zaccheus is moved solely by the Presence of his Heavenly Guest and very Earthly guest.

The heart of the Gospel is this, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice. And indeed I came to call not the righteous, but sinners." (Mt. 9:9-13) Jesus brought real hope for the human race! Even if you can’t see it or come to believe it, light is shining everywhere! The Lord is the Supreme Reality and shines in the hearts of all humankind.

Manning continues, "Every Christian generation tries to dim the blinding brightness of its meaning because the gospel seems too good to be true." It is vital that we not be among those who reject this beating heart of the Gospel.

There is a little story of a very public sinner who gets himself excommunicated from a church. He finds God standing outside and complains to him, “They threw me out!” God replies, “Don’t worry. They won’t let me in either.” The truth is that we are all sinners and if we were really honest about it, we might find ourselves someday excommunicated with Jesus, too.

The Gospel has led me to believe without shadow of a doubt that the church should be the place where everyone is free to be and encouraged to be completely honest without fear of judgment or retribution or certainly excommunication. God loves and embraces everyone, so we love and embrace everyone. It is simple, so simple we can’t see it. Or maybe we don’t want to. 

The truth revealed in Christ is that we no longer need to lie to or about ourselves to God or others. Grace has set us free.

The god who so often haunts us is the one we think we have to placate and appease, who admires and rewards our insipid and showy piety, who delights in our playacting. This god is an idol of our own making. Let’s please take Paul seriously when he exclaims in absolute honesty and humility, “All my righteousness is as filthy rags!”

And he says that of all the great things we can do, even miracles, even, I daresay, right belief and right worship, is nothing more than “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” if our hearts are not broken and flooded to overflowing with love and kindness for all.

So, I believe, in some way, that every Jesus Prayer we pray should be accompanied by faithful acts of self-sacrificial compassion. Thousands of prayers with thousands of grace-filled actions would utterly transform the world as it transforms our lives – the energy of love released from our hearts and flowing throughout the world.