WBB Worship During COVID-19: Up a Tree, In a Crowd

[During the time that the worship of the Wine Before Breakfast community at the University of Toronto is suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are posting a shortened service each week for personal worship. Most of what you would find at WBB on a Tuesday morning is here, except for the major omissions of the Eucharist and a communal breakfast. We encourage you to use this liturgy for your own spiritual sustenance, and to remain in community with your siblings in Christ during this crisis. Of course, we invite anyone to use this liturgy and to repost it as you see fit.  In hope, Brian Walsh, Deb Whalen-Blaize and Aileen Verdun.]


Introduction by Brian Walsh

It was a crowd.

Cheek by jowl.
Necks craning to see.
Shoulders leaning,
elbows jabbing.

Not what you would call social distancing.

Everyone trying to see.
This heart healer.
This magical physician.

You know that something is happening,
and you don’t know what it is.
But this crowded mass is bad news.

Anxiety is rising.
Neighbours are a threat.
The surreal is in the air.

Longing to see.
Maybe to be seen.
Aching for health.
Hungry for a clean wind’s kiss.

It is some such confusion
that has us by the throat.
That keeps us apart.
That mingles with our longing.

And so we come to Zaccheus up a tree.
In a crowd, but all alone.

Zacchaeus, a human contagion.
Zacchaeus, living in perpetual social distance.
Zacchaeus, despised and feared.
Zacchaeus, deeply, deeply alone.

And Jesus invites himself over for dinner.

Well, we tend to have breakfast with Jesus
every Tuesday morning.
We gather as neighbours, as family.

But not this Tuesday.
And not for a number of Tuesdays.

So we gather here.
On a computer screen.
Not very intimate, really.
Not very tactile.

No bread, no wine.
No embrace, no faces.
Not even coffee-soaked conversations.

But we have word.
We have music.
We have prayer.
We have hearts open.

We still gather with Jesus.

I know it isn’t the same
but the invitation remains.

Come into worship.

Take some time,
maybe early Tuesday morning,
maybe at mid-day,
maybe in the evening.

Pour the coffee,
or maybe some wine.

Come into worship.

And if it seems a good thing,
share your thoughts,
your prayers,
your anxieties,
your hopes.

It’s called “comments.”
Who knows what might happen.

Friends, we will continue to craft
these online services until at least
the end of the semester.

And through each week
we’ll share other resources
to encourage our faith together,
to liberate our imaginations,
and to minister to one another.

Come into worship.

Prelude: “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Bob Dylan)

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you when he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel to be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible!” as he hands you a bone
And something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

You have many contacts among the lumberjacks
To get you facts when someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect,
anyway they already expect you to all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you and then he kneels
He crosses himself and then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice, he asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan”
And you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Now, you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word “Now”
And you say, “For what reason?” and he says, “How”
And you say, “What does this mean?” and he screams back,
“You’re a cow!
Give me some milk or else go home”
And you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Well, you walk into the room like a camel, and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law against you comin’ around
You should be made to wear earphones
‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Gospel: Luke 19.1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not,
because he was short in stature. 

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him,
because he was going to pass that way. 

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said,
“He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor;
and if I have defrauded anyone of anything,
I will pay back four times as much.” 

Then Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Up a Tree and Ready for Tea:
The Stray in the Wilderness Comes Home

Homily by Deb Whalen-Blaize

I know what you’re thinking.  I’m thinking it, too.

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man…  and a very little man was he…”
I cannot read this passage without automatically singing that Sunday School song.

Zacchaeus is a character that has been present in my consciousness for a very long time, because of simple little songs and flannel graphs.  And certainly, as children, he was a character we could relate to, because the text specifically mentions that he was a short guy.  Who, better than a child, can empathize with someone stuck in a crowd trying to observe a spectacle and can’t see a thing?  And while poor Zacchaeus was too old to get hoisted up on someone’s shoulders, like a kid could, he wasn’t above tree-climbing.  I respect that.

Down in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras, you will see, among the crowds lining the parade route, 7-foot ladders with seats fastened onto the tops, so that children have somewhere to sit where they can actually see what’s going on.  And for some of them, that vantage point also allows for some welcome exposure.  A friend of mine stood next to a row of these ladder-chairs, all sat with children proudly adorned in beads they’d caught from the passing floats.

One kid leaned over to the child beside him and said,
“I got more beads than your mama’s got RHYMES.”

Like …  I mean, the beads were FREE.  He didn’t earn them.  He got them by reaching out his hands when they were thrown off a float, and just caught them.  But because he was in a position to BE SEEN, it seems like he wanted everyone (and their mama) to know he was not wasting his opportunity or his vantage point, to collect bright shiny things with which to adorn himself.

Zacchaeus knew something about that too.

Tax collectors had a fairly mean reputation, because they typically collected amounts from people that were more, if not much more,  than was actually required.  It was the only way to make a profit, and if you didn’t want your taxes to “go missing”, you had better pay the total that the collector demanded. 

When you have a job that makes you automatically despicable in the eyes of the public, there is certainly a temptation to use your power for your own benefit.

If you’re not going to be well liked, you can at least be rich.

There is a certain cache in making people jealous … by having more beads than your mama’s got rhymes. 

Zacchaeus was good at this stuff.
Extortion was his middle name.
That’s probably how he got to be the chief tax collector
who didn’t have to bother extorting his neighbours
because he could just lean on the collection agents under him.

I guess it’s kind of easy to convince yourself that if you have enough money and surround yourself with enough luxury, you don’t need anyone to like you.
You could hide yourself just fine behind your heaps of bright shiny things.
And when you emerged, you at least had a reputation to precede you, even if it wasn’t a noble one.

But Jesus had a reputation around those parts too.

What else would make a wealthy extortionist climb up a tree
just to get a good look at someone passing through?

Here was a guy with a following who gained his reputation criticizing
the very empire that Zacchaeus worked for.
Here was a guy who offered a very different way of life,
and was unimpressed with people of wealth like Zacchaeus.
Here was a guy who saw people not for what they gained
and hoarded and kept,

but for what they had to give.  

And I imagine it would have been compelling to Zaccheus
to see what that looked like.
What does a parade look like when it features a man
who scorns wealth?
Who says he has true wealth to share
and that it has nothing to do with money?

I love the way Joni Mitchell captures this scene in her song
“Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free).”

I am up a sycamore, looking through the leaves
A sinner of some position

Who in the world can this heart-healer be?
This magical physician?

Enter the multitudes: the walking wounded
They come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes
Thy Kingdom come, they will be done

‘Climb down! Climb down!’ he says to me
From the middle of unrest
They think his light is squandered
But he sees a stray in the wilderness
And I see how far I’ve wandered

Rumours of Jesus bearing God’s Kingdom
and its currency of love and equity
was enough for Zacchaeus to emerge from his stockpiles,
and climb that tree.
To gauge how far he’d wandered, a stray in the wilderness.

It wasn’t enough to know Jesus was nearby.
He had to see this “diver of the heart” for himself.
Was it all just too good to be true?

I wonder if he actually counted on being seen, though.
It’s a no-brainer; a grown man of any stature up in a tree
is going to attract attention,
even more than a kid on a ladder brandishing his shiny beads.

It’s hard to get a good vantage point to see something
without being seen at the same time.

That Sunday School song tells us what happened next very succinctly:

“And as the saviour passed that way, he looked up into the tree
And he said, ‘Zacchaeus!  You come down.
For I’m coming to your house for tea!
Yes I’m coming to your house for tea!”

I always liked this part of the song best,
because we got to dance around and celebrate.
Jesus and Zacchaeus were going to be friends!
They were so different, but they were going to have tea!
God can do anything!

It really does take a special kind of worldview
to look at a desperate man, literally up a tree,
despised by everyone else in the crowd and see what’s really going on.

As Mitchell puts it, Jesus sees a stray in the wilderness.

He sees Zacchaeus not as a rich man.
Not as a chief tax collector.
He sees someone who has something to give
– dinner and so much more.

Which leads to a watershed moment.
Because despite the criticism from the rest of the crowd,
Zacchaeus leans into this new identity
as a giver immediately, ready to correct all of his extortion
and bribery and thievery.

He is ready to give it all away to anyone he’s wronged.
In an instant, he is willing to ditch all the bright shiny things
he’s been hiding behind for years.

They just don’t matter.

The heart healer has turned the entire world around
ith an invitation to a man to be his true self
– something so much more than the empire ever expected him to be.

It is easy to get stuck in these systems.

We play along in order to protect ourselves and keep afloat
but what we really need is to be seen. 

We hoard wealth (and, apparently, toilet paper),
we brandish our beads at the parade,
post our acquisitions and adventures on Instagram,
hoping for some security and maybe a little admiration,
but what we really need is to be seen.

What we really need is for someone
to expect something good of us.
To hold us to a higher standard.
To invite us out from behind our mountains 
of wealth and status and greed and hoarding
into the fresh air of generosity, justice and hospitality

Jesus does that.
He sees us.
And he tells us that not only are we more than
earthly powers ever allow us to be,
but that we have something to give.

We have an important place in the Kingdom.

Made in the image of God, we have such power to love
and resist the evil that will tear our communities apart
with its viciously selfish, one-dimensional wealth-mongering.

We do not have to be slaves to this system that feeds on the 99%,
climbing all over each other like crabs in a bucket.

The Kingdom of Jesus has an entirely different economy,
where everyone, inherently, has something valuable to contribute.

In the Kingdom of God, our humanity is what is truly valued
and when nurtured, it’s what allows us to contribute
such beauty and love to the world.

By cherishing the humanity in ourselves, and in one another,
our conduct starts to look shockingly different
from those who succumb to the slavery of capitalism,
or any of the other isms we fall prey to
as we look for meaning and belonging in this world.

That Jesus sees us, knows our name,
and says that we are not automatically deficient
is a radical message of acceptance and hope. 

We need to be reminded that no matter our social or economic status,
we have something to contribute that is highly valued in the Kingdom of God.
And sometimes an invitation is all it takes to unlock that gift.

I also had an encounter with a kid at Mardi Gras.

When we arrived in New Orleans, we headed straight down to the parade.
We walked into the crowd, as close to the curb as we could get.
And we ended up standing next to a kid no older than 12,
who was standing on a chair, covered in beads and holding a plastic,
LED lit sceptre above his head.

He was obviously in his element.
After a few minutes he tapped me on the shoulder.
Having heard our apparently obvious accents, he asked
“Where y’all from?”
He was shocked at the answer.
“Canada?  For REAL?”

And then, as if there was nothing left to do,
he took one of the strands of beads from around his neck
– a gold plastic thing with a huge, gaudy decal on it –
and he placed it over my head and around my neck.

“There.  You’re gonna need that.”
And went back to partying.

I still have those gaudy, plastic beads.
They remind me that hospitality and care for others
can and should be my automatic response.
Because if this kid could look at me
and offer me something of himself
without thinking about it,
without knowing me or needing any qualifiers,
then I can do it too.

And if we keep doing that for each other,
then God’s Kingdom is gonna get built.


Hymn: Will you come and Follow Me

Prayers by Aileen Verdun

If we could just see you,
even for a moment,
it would change everything.

But the crowds are too thick,
the pain of our world too much.
We can’t reach past the suffering that we see in our city and around the world.
We can’t reach past the fear of pandemic, of climate catastrophe.
We can’t reach past our own complacency in systems of injustice.

Where are you?

Please, we just need to see you.

[Prayers of longing for the presence of Christ in our world]

you call our names and we hear you.

You’re here!
We can see you!
And you called us!
This changes everything.
This changes everything.

Your presence is here, your Kindom is breaking through.
Now is the time for justice to roll down.

Now is the time for love to encompass all.
And you’re calling us to be a part of it!

There is only one response that we can think of to such a calling.
Christ, forgive us our sins.
We are sinners of some position,
and our complacency in systems of injustice is great.

But, like Zacchaeus, we will not only ask you to forgive us;
we go out to make things right.

We will give what was unfairly received away to those in need.
We will offer reparations for the injustice in which we participate.
We will figure out what it means to practice radical hospitality in the midst of pandemic.
We will be a part of salvation, of justice and love, for the world.

[Prayers of repentance]

Your presence is here, your spirit is with us.
In a time when our community cannot physically be with one another,
bind us up in you.

Remind us of your presence,
bring health and wellness to our world,
and use our acts of repentance to usher in your Kindom for all of creation.


Reflection Song: “Passion Play (When All the Slaves are Free)” (Joni Mitchell)

Magdalene is trembling like a washing on a line
Trembling and gleaming
Never before was a man so kind
Never so redeeming

Enter the multitudes in Exxon blue, in radiation rose
Ecstasy, now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

I am up a sycamore, looking through the leaves
A sinner of some position
Who in the world can this heart healer be
This magical physician

Enter the multitudes in Exxon blue, in radiation rose  
Misery, now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

Enter the multitudes, the walking wounded
They come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

Oh climb down climb down he says to me
From the middle of unrest
They think his light is squandered
But he sees a stray in the wilderness
And I see how far I’ve wandered

Enter the multitudes in Exxon blue, in radiation rose  
Apathy, now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

Enter the multitudes, the walking wounded
They come to this diver of the heart of the multitudes
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

Oh all around the marketplace
The buzzing of the flies
The buzzing and the stinging
Divinely barren and wickedly wise
The killer nails are ringing

Enter the multitudes in Exxon blue, in radiation rose  
Tragedy, now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?  

Wine Before Breakfast

One Response to “WBB Worship During COVID-19: Up a Tree, In a Crowd”

  1. Jacqueline

    Thanks Brian, Deb and Aileen for your powerful and inspiriting words. Rich and nourishing words for these uncertain times. God bless


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