A friend of mine and her husband recently attended a concert. It was an energetic dance band from the 70’s – but you can reminisce and then substitute your own favorite band. My friends were so excited to be there that my friend and her husband and several others began to dance in their rows. They were there to have a good time, to revel in the band’s music, to celebrate with others the joyful music and their good fortune at being there…
But there were frowns and grumbling that night. The frowns came from those behind them who did not want to stand to see… They had paid good money for their seats and they were going to enjoy that dance concert sitting down. My friend’s companions took to the aisle which seemed a bit of compromise. But the frowning and grumbling continued. Halfway thru the concert when the band Chicago started playing, the grumblers left.
Do you remember as a kid begging your mom, dad, or another adult to put you on their shoulders, just for a wee bit, so that you could see better, or see farther? You’d ask them, not for a piggy-back ride, but to climb way up, where your mom or dad would need to hold onto your legs just to steady you as sat perched on your lofty height, your face brushing your dad’s hair, the smell of his shampoo still lingering in the air?
Imagine now Zacchaeus. Imagine his nimble footedness to find that tree and to climb, oh so high, to see Jesus coming down the road. It was a sight not to be missed—Jesus was the newest gig in town and Zacchaeus wasn’t about to miss it on account of either his stature or his status. We are told he was short—maybe his being short was a reference to his physical height, but maybe, just maybe Zacchaeus lacked something that allowed him to see at ground level what was happening and why it was happening. Maybe he knew that he had such a spirit deficit, despite his wealth, but was willing to do something about it. Certainly we know that he was a tax collector, and as such, he was likely derided for his occupation or for his collaboration with the Romans. And likely too, his climbing to get a better view may have been like my friends making the most of their ticket to the concert by standing and dancing with wild abandon in the aisles despite the frowning going on from those who deemed concerts or church going as passive activities.
What keeps you from seeing things at ground level? Is there another answer for you than to grumble that others take their assigned seats and quit dancing to a different beat? Do you, like Zacchaeus, feel that you lack something too, something that might help you to see things more clearly and with more compassion than anger? Do you feel that exploring your spirituality helps you to see better and farther than you would if you were to choose to go it alone? What tree are you climbing these days to get a better or an unobstructed view? Whose shoulders are helping you to see better in your relationships, or in your job, or in your personal affairs?
Yes, it is a lot of questions for one sermon. But the spiritual life is full of questions: reflective, reforming, reconciling, and renewing questions…questions that help us to fine-tune our responses and gauge our understanding.
When I was in New England, there were lots of churches that had unused balconies, many congregations not being large enough to actually fill those big, heat sucking balconies. Some churches kept their balconies out of nostalgia and sometimes the balconies became dumping grounds for other unused church items: outdated hymnals, old and broken chandeliers, dusty bibles, and worn pew cushions that had seen better days.
Throughout the years, some churches made the difficult decision to remove their balconies and reconfigure their sanctuary space to meet present day needs. Yet, balcony views continue to be coveted in our world. A hotel room with a balcony view facing the ocean often costs more than one that faces the hotel swimming pool. There is even a FB page dedicated to the images and photos of what people see from their balconies all around the world. One photo shows a beautiful inlet with palm trees swaying gently; another balcony shows a massage parlor lit up in neon in Bucharest. And balconies serve as a good physical reminder that we human beings are often unseeing and only dimly aware when it comes to our policies, plans, perceptions: It wasn’t so long ago that balconies were symbols of segregation…in movie theaters and even churches, the balconies were reserved for people of color. In Shakespeare’s time, the cheapest seats were those closest to the stage on the main floor with the common people.
It seems to me that so much depends upon what you choose to see or refuse to see when you climb so high that you can touch the stars and are able to catch a whiff of the ocean from where you presently sit.
Our prophet friend, Habakkuk, doesn’t see such pleasant things when he climbs to his high perch. And that is the point. He laments, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” For the prophet, there is no beautific view of sunsets in Sicily, stars over the savannah, or exciting city nightlife, but a view of destruction and violence, justice perverted, strife and contention from all sides.
And Habakkuk rails against God. How many times have you climbed onto God’s shoulders, expecting to see some lovely vision of hope, and have only seen your own hurt or the hurt of others mirrored back at you? It happens. Our laments in the bible are filled with the gap between the beautiful balcony view—the beloved community that God seems to hold before us that the day-to-day realities that we experience. We grumble at a God who would dance in the aisle when the songs are full of the blues, missed chords, or haunted melodies.
In spite of this, Habakkuk decides station himself on the ramparts and keep watch. He is like Zacchaeus waiting for Jesus to come down the road, while the others are looking up at him frowning. He is like my friends who make the most of their ticket by dancing while it is still quite possible and necessary for them. He is like you, who despite the tenor of bitter politics or the failures of our society, or the failures and miseries in your own lifetime, continue to wait and watch with hope for the vision of harmony and well-being that can be written, can be known, and can be experienced.
Both of our readings describe what can be seen from the heights. Neither vision is either/or. We can see trial and travesty of justice, but we are also challenged to see hope and peace walking down the road like Jesus towards us. Like Zacchaeus, we find that our Lord will call us down from our high perch asking if there might be room in our homes for him and for the God of us all. The result of changing our position is another perspective and a more communal way of life. “Lord,” Zacchaeus says, “half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” This is what Zacchaeus is willing to sacrifice to see God’s vision. What are you willing to give? To Zacchaeus, Jesus replies, “Today deliverance and freedom has come to this house.” Freedom, because a vision will always cost something. Deliverance, because Zacchaeus is not free if he has gained his wealth by fraud or at someone else’s expense.
I do not have a balcony in the apartment where I live. It is something that people tend to notice when they come to visit as my neighbors on either side do have them. Some have asked me if I feel short-changed. I do not. One does not need a balcony to be able to have an unobstructed view. It depends upon how one chooses to frame what one presently sees. One does not need a balcony to have an unobstructed view of life or to address the issues of this day and age. We have our gospel stories to help us to remove the obstructions from our eyes; we have the testimony of both saints and sinners to guide us, and we have caring people, hard-working people, and saintly people to write and hold God’s vision before us. They make it plain to our eyes and ears so that we can more clearly see the pain of the world, but also its remedy. You do not need a balcony to see what is on ground level and what is just over the horizon. However, like Zacchaeus, like Habakkuk, we do need each other and God. However, like Zacchaeus, like Habakkuk, we may need to change our position by either lifting our sights or listening to the people where they are on the ground.
Lastly, hear these words from the celebrated poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.
The poem is called, “Fare Well”:
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open!
Sisters and brothers, leave the balcony open, so that you may see who is sitting there (or not), who is harvesting the wheat, and who is right now grasping an orange so that he or she may share it with you. Leave the balcony open that you may see what needs to be seen with God, and for God, both from ground level and from the heights.