Sermon: “Saints Up a Tree”

October 30, 2016: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Luke 19:1-10

Last week, we read a story that Jesus told about a tax collector: a fictitious one, a tax collector he created in his imagination for the story. This week, we hear about Jesus meeting with an actual tax collector: and this tax collector is up a tree.

Today, we dislike paying taxes. Conventional wisdom says that if a politician wants to leave office, the quickest way to do so is to raise taxes. That’s not how it was in the first century. Zacchaeus and his colleagues collected money for the Roman occupiers, which is more than enough cause for resentment. But they also were well known for collecting more than was actually due and pocketing the difference. That’s how tax collectors got rich.

Our gospel writer, Luke, went to great lengths to prepare us for this account of Jesus and Zacchaeus. In the previous chapter, Luke placed Jesus telling parables about tax collectors, and also about the rewards of persistence. He included the story of Jesus telling his disciples that children – people who aren’t very tall – were welcome to come to him. Luke included Jesus’ warning to a wealthy man that he needed to give all his possessions to the poor and come follow him.

Having given us Jesus describing these things, Luke gives us Jesus – and Zacchaeus – doing these things, putting them in practice: a tax collector showing persistence because he’s not very tall, and offering his considerable wealth to help the poor. Granted, it was only half.

Luke went to a lot of trouble to prepare us for this story. I think he believed it was important.

Zacchaeus climbed a tree for what seems like a very simple reason: He wanted to see Jesus. There was a big crowd, he couldn’t see over people or get in front of them, and he wanted to see Jesus.

There are some other things about this story, though, that make it seem like Zacchaeus had more in mind than getting a glimpse of the celebrity. In verse 8, when our translation quotes him as saying “I will give to the poor;” “I will pay back four times as much,” the Greek text is actually in the present tense.

“Half of my possessions I give to the poor.” “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” As if he’s saying, “That’s what I’m doing – right now.”

Biblical scholars disagree about what that means, but I do think that it throws some light on his climbing the tree. He didn’t cling to the branches out of simple curiosity. He climbed that tree so that something different would happen in his life.

Zacchaeus took a literal step toward Jesus. All right, it was actually a step to hang over Jesus. It probably wasn’t his first way of reaching toward God and a different life, though. He took a literal step up.

I’ve been picturing saints up a tree all week: the people in our lives, some of whom we’ll remember shortly, who made such a difference for us. I know perfectly well that nobody starts their journey as a widely acknowledged saint. Each in their own way, they climb.

Peter, James, and John climbed out of their fishing boats. Mary Magdalene climbed out of a life beset with seven demons. Saint Francis climbed out of wealth and privilege. Queen Lili’uokalani climbed out of bitterness and rage. Father Damien climbed out of health and safety.  Antoinette Brown Blackwell climbed out of the expectations of her time to become the first woman ordained in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., climbed over the barriers of his time to lead a movement of liberation.

They climbed their trees. They reached out for Jesus. They took on their obligations. Some of them paid a high price to do it.

Who else has climbed a tree for you? What obstacles did they overcome so that they could inspire you, guide you, support you, or nurture you? What did they give up so that you could become who you are?

As I look over these candles awaiting the flame of our memory, our respect, and our endless love, I realize that I don’t know all the stories of all the trees in all these lives. I doubt anyone ever could. I assure you, though, that each of them, in their own way, strove to reach up and out to something greater than themselves, and to extend themselves for others.

Many of these people were parents. Some were musical. Some worked day jobs, some worked in their homes. Some made friends easily, others had to work at it. Some were leaders, and some did the tasks that leaders rely on. Some volunteered around the church, some volunteered around the community, some were only recognized for their generosity by the people they helped directly, quietly, one to one.

They had their good days and their bad days. Some days they saw the tree and said, “No way. I’m not climbing that today.” Some days they were eager to climb, but they didn’t have the energy. Some days they had all they needed to climb but couldn’t reach the next branch. Some days they leapt from limb to limb like a gymnast.

They climbed their trees. They reached out for Jesus. They took on their obligations. Some of them paid a high price to do it.

The writer Frederick Buechner observes that in the gospel stories, Jesus tends to favor the outcasts and the lost. He writes, “Why are they treasured? But maybe you can say at least this about it – that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all. ‘All the earth is mine!’ says Yahweh, ‘and all that dwell therein,’ adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.”

Before each of us is a tree. It’s probably different for each of us, and we may face different trees throughout our lives. Sometimes it’s a tree with branches like steps, just inviting us up. Sometimes there’s a stretch from branch to branch. Heaven help us on the days when it’s a coconut palm.

But in that tree is the sight of Jesus, with his healing and his inspiration and his challenges and his forgiveness and his love. From that tree he may call us down to serve him supper, or to host his family of the lost. From that tree he may summon us to receive forgiveness or renewal of life. From that tree, I assure you, he will see us, beckon us, and smile.

Climb your trees. Reach out for Jesus. Take on the obligations you’ll receive. Prepare to pay a price to do it.

But climb, because Jesus is there to see.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on October 30, 2016

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