A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on November 4, 2007
23rd Sunday after Pentecost/Year C
Sermon Text: Luke 19:1-10
What is it that drives a person up a tree?
For Stephen Sillett, it was the chance to prove that the tree he was currently in was the world’s tallest. Stephen Sillett is a botanist at Humboldt State University in Arcata. Last year on the northern California coast, Sillett climbed a coastal redwood recently named “Hyperion” and proved that it was the tallest tree yet known to exist at 379.1 feet. On an earlier climb in another 300+ footer, Stillett fell from a height of around 28 stories and only saved himself by grabbing a branch on his way down. His shoulder was painfully ripped from its socket, but his grip held and he was saved.
What drove Julia Butterfly Hill to climb a 180 foot, 600 year old Redwood and not return to the earth for 738 days was a desire to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting down this old-growth giant. It is the same desire, as I understand, expressed by the tree-sitters who, even now, are perched outside the stadium on the Cal campus in Berkeley.
For any young girl or boy, it doesn’t take a noble cause to send you skyward. Just ask any one of a number of Shell Ridge kids who just can’t seem to stay out of our Sycamores.
When I was a young boy growing up in Port Angeles, Washington, there was an old Atlas Cedar across the street. We would ride our bikes and play with our matchbox cars in the dirt at its base. But sometimes when I was alone, I would climb the old tree’s branches almost like you would climb a ladder. Some 50-60 feet in the air where the top thinned out and swayed in the breeze I would perch and look out over our town. Had my mom known that from time to time I ascended to the wobbly top of this old tree, this mild-mannered pastor’s wife might have become prone to violence. There are some things your parents are better off not knowing. And there is something about climbing a tree for clearing your head or changing your perspective.
So what drove Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree as the author of Luke’s gospel tells it? This is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible for those of us who grew up going to Sunday school. Possibly it is because someone turned it into that snappy little song of which the Ramblers earlier reminded us: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he …”.
You know, as I try to shape a mental image of Zacchaeus, it’s not hard for me to imagine that a similar song was sung tauntingly and disparagingly about the once diminutive boy and now diminutive man. What is it about human beings that makes us want to exploit the perceived weaknesses of others? Zacchaeus’ vertically challenged condition was well-known enough that Luke notes that it is what drove Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree.
And isn’t it just like Luke’s gospel that all the wrong people seem drawn to Jesus. All the wrong people seem to “get” Jesus while all the right people fight him all the way to the cross. Zacchaeus is one of the “wrong people”. And it’s not his short stature that is what’s wrong in the sight of the good, respectable folk … it’s that he’s short on scruples and short on compassion and short on anything that makes a good person “good”. He’s the chief tax collector and as such had made himself rich on what he has forcibly extracted from residents of Jericho on behalf of the hated Roman government. If Zacchaeus had been wronged as a child, he made it up in spades as an adult.
He’s a bit of a Richard Nixon character. When Nixon lost to Pat Brown in the California governor’s race in 1962, he purportedly withdrew from politics and blamed the media for his loss saying: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more …”. When people start talking about themselves in the third person, it’s time to get worried.
Zacchaeus knows what it’s like to be kicked around. And while he’s had some measure of revenge, so it seems, something about Jesus drove him to want to get closer and have a look at this man that some were claiming to be a fulfillment of God’s promise to send a messiah, God’s representative on earth. If Jesus really did represent the goodness and mercy of the God of Israel, Zacchaeus wanted to see it for himself.
While Zacchaeus had long been judged by what people thought they knew about him, his tree-climbing reveals that there was more to know. And presumably “the more” that there was to know was that this heartless thug yet had the capacity to change … to transform … to discover a capacity for generosity and kindness.
As children we are warned not to pre-judge … not to judge a book by its exterior, yet on the other hand, paradoxically, we’re told—warned— that “we never get a second chance to make a good first impression”, that the initial seconds of every first meeting create an indelible image of a person that is almost impossible to erase. It’s possible to spend much of one’s adult life trying to outlive the old and often false myths of one’s childhood … the names we got called, the caricatures of our true selves that we got saddled with. Some of us have fled our families of upbringing because of our families’ refusal to let us change, develop, transform and their determination to tell the old stories of childhood as though they still define us. As odd as it seems for the son of a pastor who is himself a pastor to say it, this is in part my own story.
What did the good people of Jericho think they knew about Zacchaeus? Bad man. Cheater. Collaborator. Opportunist. Clear case of Napoleon complex. A neat little box. And it serves people’s own ends … their own needs to keep others in little boxes. As long as “bad people” behave like “bad people”, then perhaps the extremely modest goodness that I am capable of won’t seem quite so modest. This is partly what’s at stake in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the previous chapter of Luke who are both everheard praying at the temple. Here’s how Eugene Peterson describes the two prayers and their pray-ers in his translation, “The Message”:
The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.' "Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, 'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'"
Do you not find it interesting to note that Jesus said that is was the tax man and NOT the Pharisee who went home made right with God? Luke tells us that Jesus told this story to “some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people.”
Last night, several of us from Shell Ridge attended a celebration at San Leandro Community Church. We celebrated together the widening circle of inclusion on behalf of our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered sisters and brothers in Christ. But reading the ancient and awful prayer of the Pharisee should remind us that widening circles of inclusion don’t likely happen easily or overnight.
Last night, my longtime and very dear friend and colleague, Jim Hopkins told a story I’d never heard before. During his admission into seminary, Jim was asked if there was anything that might ever cause him to ever leave the ministry in the American Baptist denomination. Jim quickly and confidently replied that if ever the denomination permitted homosexuals to assume pastoral leadership, that would be the time for his exit. This story was told in the midst of his description of his long, full circle of healing from the homophobia with which he’d been raised. He described how his parents had left the Southern Baptist church of his childhood because the Southern Baptists had just gotten “too liberal.” If you don’t know it, Jim has pastored for 18 years the congregation that has helped lead the healing of homophobia and helped widen the circle of inclusion for LBGT folk for a couple of generations. It is the congregation where I received my pastoral training. It is the congregation that aided in my own healing from homophobia.
I learned something else last night. George Barna is the leading pollster on behalf of Evangelical Christianity, in other words, on behalf of fairly traditional and conservative Christianity. He’s the Southern Baptist equivalent of the Gallup Poll. In a recent poll whose results have just been released, Barna asked both churched and un-churched young adults to describe in a single phrase what it was that summed up Christianity. A single phrase. Churches like us take a crack at that from time to time. We say about ourselves things like: “friendly … caring … welcoming … peacemaking … justice-seeking” … inclusive … any others? _____________________???
So, a large sampling of young adults from age 16-29, both self-described non-Christians as well as avowed churchgoers, were asked: “In a word, what describes Christianity?” 91% of the non-Christians and 80% of the regular church-goers, the Christians, said the same thing. The phrase that best describes Christianity from the vantage point of their generation is: “anti-homosexual”.
WOW. Wow. Is it this for which Jesus came to live, minister and die and be reborn? Is this what the modern church has been reduced to in its public witness on behalf of Jesus the Christ? This Jesus who called down from the tree Zacchaeus, this Jesus who joined Zacchaeus in his home at the common table, this Jesus who would soon go up on this own tree because he believed that nothing less than full “God-imagined” humanity resided in every human soul, every heart, and could be freed for the benefit of all … if only we saw people as God saw them.
If rotten to the core, tax-collecting, Rome-collaborating Zacchaeus, who was worse than even “robbers, crooks and adulterers” in the minds of his more righteous neighbors—if Zacchaeus could be transformed and discover within a wellspring of generosity and justice … well … what’s possible for you and for me? And what’s possible for the venerable and vulnerable church? Might we one day not be defined and described by what we are against but the many good things we are for?
Now, as much as ever, is the time for the church to prove to a cynical world that it is not a “heartless thug”, but a place and a people of transformation and healing, generosity and kindness, a people of hope where there is “a place for all.” Now, more than ever, may be the time for Shell Ridge Church to unequivocally declare that “if God made you, then we want you.” Now may be the time for us to plainly state that there are NO people, none of God’s human creation in its wondrous variety who are not fully welcome into the life and the love of this congregation.
It is at the table of fellowship in his own home that Zacchaeus discovers his own hidden capacities for transformation and generosity and fairness. It is at the table of fellowship in our home—THIS home—that we are given an opportunity to discover and live out these things as well. It is at the table of fellowship that we learn and re-learn how to be good stewards of the grace of God that has been showered so generously upon us in the person and the sacred friendship of Jesus.
It is also at the table of fellowship in this “home of faith” that we learn that it takes all of the Zacchaeuses of the world together with all of us to create the truest vision of hope and transformation for our world that is in such need and knows such hunger for bread and meaning and hope.
You’re learning these Sundays that we are in a Stewardship campaign … a campaign where we are invited to “surrender all” … where we are invited to place “all that we have” and “all that we are” in God’s hands so that God’s great work of Shalom may be done in our world and in our time.
Our theme this year is “Quilted Together in Community and Common Ministry”. As I’ve thought a bit about this theme, it occurs to me that there’s nothing lonelier than a single “quilt block”. Can you imagine trying to get warm under a single, tiny square of fabric? It is only as dozens and hundreds of odd bits of random fabric are lovingly joined together that a quilt reaches its potential as a source of protective warmth and a thing of great beauty.
Very much the same is true of the bread that we break at each and every time of communion. The individual ingredients of bread are, by themselves, basically AWFUL … it is only being mixed together in the right proportions … lovingly kneaded … and carefully baked that we get a good loaf of bread that is a delight to both the mouth and the soul.
On our own, we cannot rescue the tarnished name of Christianity … or save the world from its many enormous challenges or its seeming determination to destroy itself. But when we come together around the table with our hearts and hands open to receiving the grace of God in Christ as symbolized in these gifts, we give God the chance to soften us and transform us. We give God the chance to channel the very same grace that has been given to us into the lives of the world around us.
It is at the table of the Lord where we know grace and feel the powers of transformation at work and where we can hear and repeat the words spoken to the transformed and transforming chief tax collector: “TODAY is “salvation day” in this house.”
People of Shell Ridge and Stewards of God’s grace: TODAY IS the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Today IS salvation day in this house!