Those of us who are short, or as it is said these days, vertically challenged, can relate to Zacchaeus. Sometimes our vision is blocked and we can’t see. I spent many years in the pew, often hidden behind others. Now as a bishop I have a better vantage point. (That is not always an advantage.)
Zacchaeus was not only short. He was different from others. He was a tax collector and therefore despised by many for both the sin of extortion and for colluding with the Roman occupiers. He was different also in how he sought to see Jesus. Most of us would not have made a spectacle of ourselves by climbing a tree to see better, we just accept the blocked vision. And Zacchaeus was different in how he responded to Jesus who called him by his name. He quickly came down and reformed his ways. Most of us take a little more time.
As we come to worship and receive Christ here today, we are different from one another, yet each of us is called by name. Everyone who enters our church is a special child of God, carrying life’s burden and life’s blessings differently. Some come here in celebration – a baby miraculously born, a project successfully completed, a crop abundantly harvested, a friendship carefully restored. Some come here to escape to a quiet place away from a busy or abusive household, a faithless or unjust workplace, a financial struggle or personal challenge. Some come here in petition that a loved one return or be protected, a relationship be strengthened, bodies healed, hurts soothed, forgiveness offered or received. Some come here in search, out of loneliness or wonderment or curiosity or call, in search of the peace that comes only in a relationship with God through Christ. It is in that diversity that we gather together before the same Lord and savior of us all, who calls us down from being observers from afar to the solid ground of conversion and commitment.
In France there is a special place where the people today owe their beautiful environment to a poor shepherd who lived alone in the then barren region where there were very few trees. While tending his flock in the autumn, he would pick up each acorn that he saw. In the early spring he would us his staff to dig a hole and drop one in. He did this for nearly 40 years. At his death the countryside was covered with trees and teeming with wildlife. Many would have viewed him as different and of little consequence, yet he planted and trusted in the harvest master. Zacchaeus reminds us that in God’s eyes there are no small or insignificant people, and that there is no small or insignificant way in which we can share Christ’s love for others.
In November we pray in a special way for those who have died. A moving example I have shared before. “The day the clowns cried.” That is the newspaper headline of an article that described a tragedy when fire engulfed a circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut in 1908. Within six minutes 168 people died and another 590 were injured. The day the clowns cried. Among the dead was a little girl whom no one claimed or identified. She was given a number, 1565. Little Miss 1565 was the name given her lifeless body.
Many years later a lieutenant in the Hartford Fire Department came across her picture in an old file. It showed her laying peacefully in the morgue, unclaimed, unrecognized, unknown. Little Miss 1565. The fire occurred before he was born, but the firefighter felt the need to discover the identity of the little girl, to restore her name. Why? Because there is a mysterious link between the living and the dead; we believe in the communion of saints. Or, perhaps because deep in our hearts we believe that no one should die unnoticed, uncared about, unloved.
It took him nine years but finally he learned that Little Miss 1565 was 8 year old Eleanor Cook. She was described by those who had known her as partial to hair ribbons, cats and dresses. Why no one looked for her, mourned for her we do not know. But we do know that she was loved by her and our God, reflected in a firefighter years later showing he cared.
We pray in a special way for all those who have died, known or not known, mourned or not mourned, loved or not loved here on earth but loved by the greatest love of all, the one who created us all. We pray for all those in purgatory who await the fullness of God’s love, especially those who have no one to pray for them.
Differences in stature and in faith may set us apart. Sometimes the challenge we face to live out the teachings of Christ may make us uncomfortable even seem a burden. Yet it is a burden worthy carrying. Jesus came to see and to save the lost, me and you. He invites us down from being observers with our heads, to follow him with our hearts and our hands. In the words of St. Paul in our second reading: ‘we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling.’ May we be worthy.