October 30, 2016 – The 24th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When was the last time you climbed a tree? Not to put a deer stand in it. Not to cut some limbs out of it. Not to get a lost cat or a lost ball or a lost child down from it. When was the last time you climbed a tree just for the sake of climbing a tree?
In our front yard, there is a big magnolia tree, and our kids love to climb it. I think magnolia trees always make the best climbing trees. There are lots of sturdy limbs to climb up and plenty of large green leaves to hide behind. The tree in our yard doesn’t have many low branches, so the kids need a boost up to the first level, but, once they get started, they can go as high as they want. And, every year, they get brave enough to go a little bit higher.
Growing up, we had a magnolia tree in our back yard, too. Well, it wasn’t really in our back yard. It was just over the property line in our neighbor, Mrs. Beck’s, back yard. It was the perfect tree for climbing. You could climb it all the way to the very tip top and sit in the little spot where the five highest limbs spread out like a star. You could sit there and survey the whole neighborhood with the pride of a kid who had accomplished something. But Mrs. Beck was an older woman who had forgotten how much fun it was to climb a tree. If she heard us laughing and carrying on amidst her tree’s branches, she would come out of her house and yell at us to get down. We weren’t hurting her tree, and, as long as we were careful, we weren’t going to do ourselves any harm either, but Mrs. Beck didn’t care. She didn’t want any of that. It was as if she couldn’t stand for us kids to have fun.
When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through Jericho, I like to think that it was the child inside of him that made him think to climb a tree to get a better look. I have been to plenty of Mardi Gras parades where I was too short to see past the people in front of me, and I never considered climbing a tree. Who would do that? It’s so undignified. It’s so childish. But Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and there was something about Jesus that awakened a spark within him—a spark which had been dormant inside that little man for many years. That spark was a child who didn’t care what people thought, who wasn’t worried about ripping his pants or dirtying up his sleeves. It was the child inside of him who had nothing to lose—that was the child in Zacchaeus which led him up that tree.
When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus would be passing through his town, an uncontainable excitement began to well up inside of him. Jesus was the rabbi who was known for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He was the religious figure who spent time with those whom religion had rejected. He was one who cared about outcasts like Zacchaeus. For many years, Zacchaeus had been excluded from the temple and the synagogue. He was a chief tax collector, which means that he made his living by forcing his fellow Jews to pay taxes to the unholy Roman Empire. He worked for the occupying force, the ones who denied the people of God their God-promised freedom. And he was good at it. He had risen through the ranks and become a leader among the backstabbers and extortionists. He was rich, which means that he had become rich off the backs of his own people. No one would accept him. He wasn’t allowed to participate in the religious life of his people. In effect, he had no people. He had lost his place among the people of God. He had no access to the Almighty.
But Jesus preached a different message—one of forgiveness and acceptance and renewal. The thought that a prominent rabbi might offer him a kind word or even a handshake—a small but not insignificant sign that there was hope for sinners like Zacchaeus—was more than he could stand. The thought sent him into a gleeful tizzy. He had to see Jesus. This was his only hope. And so he climbed that sycamore tree not only so that he could see Jesus but also so that Jesus could see him.
“Zacchaeus,” Jesus called out, “hurry and come down from there, for I must stay at your house today.” It was more than the chief tax collector could have even dreamed. He had been singled out. Jesus had chosen him. When the people standing by saw what was happening, all of them—everyone—began to grumble. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” they exclaimed with a mixture of disbelief and jealous rage. They knew who Zacchaeus was—chief tax collector, chief traitor, chief sinner—and that’s the man with whom Jesus chose to dine? But, when Jesus looked up in that tree, he saw something different—something that no one else could see. Jesus saw a child—a fragile, broken, hopeful child of God who had climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus and so that Jesus could see him. And, when Jesus saw that child-like hope perched up in that tree, Jesus called to that child and said, “Come down; I choose you.”
Inside each of us is a child who wants what Zacchaeus wants. We may not be shunned from our church the way that Zacchaeus was. And we may not make our living off the backs of our neighbors the way he did. Our sins may not be for public consumption the way his were. But we’re no different. Inside all of us is the same uncertainty. Beneath all the layers of pretending, we have the same anxieties that Zacchaeus had. Do we belong? Will we be accepted? Are we lovable? The child within us only wants to be loved. That child is willing to risk embarrassment and ridicule and shame if only someone will wrap his arms around it and welcome it and love it. We all want to be loved—honestly, deeply, just as we are. And Jesus Christ sees that child inside of us and calls to it and says, “Come down, for I must dwell in your heart today.”
If we let that child within us show itself to Jesus, if we let Jesus call to us and welcome us with open arms, an incredible transformation happens. Without hesitation, Zacchaeus gave away half of his possessions and promised to restore four-fold anything he had gotten dishonestly. This was a liberality of the soul—a largesse of spirit—that can only come forth when we are truly loved. Love like that has the power to set us free. It has the power to change us into people with nothing to lose, children of God who are confident that there is nothing that can hurt us, nothing that can defeat us, nothing that can take us away from God’s love. Inside of each of us, there is a child that is willing to risk everything to receive complete, total, and perfect love like that. Will that child come out and show itself to Jesus? Will it climb a tree and say, “Here I am! Pick me! Love me!”
Take off the mask. Stop pretending. Don’t worry what people will think. Jesus can already see the child inside of you. Jesus can see that you want to be loved. Let him love you. Let him call to you. Let him dwell with you. Let that love transform you. And let him say, “You are a child of God. You belong to me.”