For me, it was a pecan tree in my grandmother's back yard. It was a massive tree and I could climb high enough to spend lots of time in the perfect resting place. I loved the view from way up high and passed a great deal of my childhood there with my hopes and dreams. It would only be later in life that I realized that to fulfill those hopes and dreams I had to climb down.
Zacchaeus found a sycamore tree. Scripture tells us that the unpopular tax collector was short in stature and needed to climb that tree just to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where He one day, would hang upon a tree.
As a tax collector Zacchaeus cooperated with the Roman officials and made his money by charging extra to the hard-working tax payers. The people did not like Zacchaeus and certainly did not care that he could not see Jesus as the crowd pushed him further back. The crowd would be shocked then when Jesus, spotting Zacchaeus up that sycamore tree called to him , told him to climb down and invited Himself to stay at his house. Jesus sought out the sinner, Jesus sought out the most despised man in the community. Why would Jesus do this? Scripture tells us that Jesus came to save those who are lost. As we say in the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, Lord Jesus, you came to call sinners.
I knew a sinner named Woody; an inmate at Rayburn Prison. Like Zacchaeus, Woody was short and small in stature. He was the oldest man in our Catholic Community at this state run prison. He was also the first inmate who made a real effort to make me feel comfortable on my first few visits to Rayburn as a Catholic Chaplain. I would learn from Woody that he was very smart, very well read and imprisoned a very long time. He never denied the fact that he had committed a crime and would remain in prison for the rest of his life. But while in prison, he climbed his own sycamore tree and caught a glimpse of Jesus. He could hear Jesus invite him to climb down that tree and spend time together. Woody experienced a complete change of heart and devoted all his time in prison to serving Christ by serving others. He became a tutor to the younger prisoners and helped them earn a GED and even an associate degree in several instances. He was a shining example to others at church, he was a song leader and always proclaimed the responsorial psalm. He invited others to Mass, went to confession monthly and prayed daily. When a retreat was planned for mostly hard-core, unbelieving inmates, Woody was selected to attend as an example to others of what a faithful, sycamore climbing Christian looked like! He helped the retreat team encourage others to climb their own sycamore trees and many not only climbed the tree but climbed down and spent time with Jesus. Seven days after the retreat ended, so did the life of my friend Woody. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Woody died in prison, felled by a stroke. Died on the concrete floor because not enough medical help was available that day. A week later, in the chapel at Rayburn prison, where most nights 50 men gather for mass, more than 200 were there for Woody's memorial service. The warden came, many of the guards too; they came to honor Woody who became the hands and feet and voice of Jesus to many others.
In the week ahead, I would like for all of us to think about Woody and Zacchaeus and consider too that sycamore tree. Thanks to the words of a brother Deacon allow me to share the following:
the sycamore tree provided a means for Zacchaeus to see Jesus when others, the crowd, prevented him from doing so. Many people in our world today, like Zacchaeus and Woody before their conversions, have still not seen Jesus. Our society today is full of materialism, hatred and distraction. We are witnessing a war of words, a nasty political battle, attacks on religious liberty, laws that supress expression of faith while promoting the killing of unborn children. Society has become the crowd that blocks the view of Jesus for those who need to see Him. But we, each of us here, can be less like the crowd that blocks others from seeking Jesus and more like that sycamore tree that lifts others high, to see Jesus, to hear his invitation to conversion, to bring others to salvation.
So I ask us gathered here today, who will you be a sycamore tree for this week? How will we witness to others as my friend Woody did everyday in prison? How will we show others that Jesus is glorified in us, and us in Him and invite others to climb down and share in His joy?