“You’re Out of Your Tree” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 30, 2016 titled “You’re Out of Your Tree” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.


Today I’m remembering a tree on the back of my grandparent’s property in Purdy, Missouri, we visited twice a year when I was a boy.  This massive tree was my safe place.  I could climb up there to get away from my big brother’s bullying, from the chores I didn’t want to do, from Mom making me sing for my grandparents, from the boring adult conversations with relatives who stopped by to visit – and it seemed we were related to everybody in Barry County.

Up in my tree I felt relaxed.  Like a secret spy I could observe the scene without getting involved in it.  Granny in the garden, granddad in the chicken coop, my big brother getting into mischief, people coming and going, I watched the world without being touched by it.  I loved to sit in that tree.

Today we hear arguably the best-known story of somebody up a tree.  If you grew up in Vacation Bible School, you learned the tale in song.  Join me if you know it:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
The Lord he wanted to see.

And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!’

What is Zach the taxman doing in that tree?

First, Luke tells us he’s diminutive in stature.  Now I’m not making any short jokes today.  I’ve been wounded by fat jokes, senior jokes, preacher jokes.  Made me want to retreat to my safety tree.  Perhaps Zach the taxman has been bullied because of his size, made to feel “less than” all his life.  That myth of the Napolean complex, how short people become overaggressive or domineering to compensate for their stature is not universally true, and ignores how we all tend to overcompensate for our insecurities.  Let’s just say climbing a tree is a practical way for Zacchaeus to see what’s happening.

But remember Zach’s a taxman.  We talked about that last week.  In fact, some commentators want to say the tax collector of Jesus’ parable on humility is Zacchaeus, which would suggest he is already isolated, penitent, seeking mercy.  But his neighbors hate him.  He would be at risk down in the crowd.  So he is up a tree not just for sight but for security.  Zach the Taxman feels safe keeping his distance, observing from above rather than being down on the ground in the hurly burly of the crowd.

The ficus sycamorus is one of the larger trees you will see in the Middle East.  It is actually a fig tree that bears edible fruit not quite as plump and juicy as the usual fig tree.  Nevertheless, it was widely planted and harvested in those days when food was scarce and everybody hungry.  And could there be a symbolic meaning to the tree in this story, as that place where all of us go, physically or in our minds, to feel safe and secure, perhaps even to observe from a distance rather than risk vulnerability by being directly engaged?  How we avoid feeling vulnerable, even though vulnerability is where our deepest selves dwell and our closest relationships thrive?

Jesus passes through Jericho.  His reputation as a teacher and healer precedes him, perhaps even rumors this guy might be the One.  The crowd gathers, and Zacchaeus retreats up his tree.  He is safely hidden from sight.  He can watch without being involved. But Jesus sees him.  Jesus sees him like he sees you and me, hiding in plain sight, perching in our safe place, afraid to venture, afraid to move beyond, observing rather than engaging.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus like he sees us, sees the secrets we try to hide and the ways we avoid dealing with the truth about ourselves so to resist the remedies that might release us.

Jesus sees, and he calls him by name.  “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I gotta hang at your crib today!”  Suddenly everybody looks up, every eye is on Zacchaeus, who is not hidden as he thought.  Of course, neither are we.  How do you think he feels in that moment?  I mean, it’s a simple request, an honor really.  All he needs to do is leave his step down from his safe place and come to Jesus.  But to Zach the taxman, that feels like…

jumping off a cliff.  It’s a giant leap of faith.  It always feels so risky and vulnerable to leave our imagined safety behind and step out in the direction of healing.

All of us seek that place where we feel safe.  We naturally pull back and observe, hide out and critique, camp in our comfort zone rather than press the envelope. But as Teddy Roosevelt observed:

It is not the critic who counts; not the (one) who points out how the strong (one) stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the (one) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; …who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if one fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Beyond our comfort zone is where we can grow and be transformed.  Risky engagement is where we can accomplish good things together.  If we camp in our safe place all the time, our spirits wither.  Growth and life and new creation happen at the edge of our easy space.

Remember that poem of Guillaume Appolinaire:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, We will fall!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

Jesus pushes Zach the Taxman to get out of his tree and invite him to remain in his domain.  Well, you know you will never be safe with Jesus in your house.  He’s rearranges all the furniture!  He makes you forgive and forget.  He makes you love the unlovely.  He makes you see the people you have rendered invisible: the poor, the sick, the stranger, the refugee.  Jesus is calling Zach the Taxman to move from his safe place to a place of constant open vulnerability. And Zach has the courage to climb down from his tree and go up to his home with Jesus.

The crowd does not approve.  From the safety of their comfort zones where they exclude “those kind” to feel more included, they criticize Jesus.  He is hanging with Zach the Taxman, a known traitor, a liar and a cheat, a greedy schemer, beyond redemption.  They are disappointed in Jesus.  What kind of Messiah would include such a scoundrel?  They are retreating to their safe place, too, behind walls of self-defended self-justification.

But Zach the taxman experiences transformation.  When Jesus comes to stay in your home, you are no longer the same.  Suddenly wealth and power are not so critical as connection and community.  Zacchaeus gives half of what he has to the poor.  He makes restitution to those he’s defrauded.  He leaves his “safe place” for a free place, where he will loved for who he is.  He can be himself and still reach to become his best self.

Jesus announces, 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.”  Even the despised and rejected tax collector is a child of Abraham, a member of the community, beloved of God, accepted by God, worthy of acceptance by his brothers and sisters.

Jesus does not say this because Zach returns the money he has stolen, but for the same reason he says it about us all.  Even when we are hiding from God, from others, from ourselves, Jesus sees us, Jesus seeks us, Jesus calls by name to say he must move into our home.

You know that massive tree I told you about where once felt safe and above the fray?  We took our kids to see my grandparents old homestead several years ago.  That tree was actually rather small, no safe place to hide after all.  I realized everybody could see me in my tree; it was never safe at all!  It’s truly self-delusional to think people can’t see who you really are.  Most people don’t care.  And some will judge you for it. But won’t it feel free to be yourself because of those people who know the real you and love you as you are?

Because he had the courage to get out of his tree, to take the leap of faith and plunge into the grace of God, Zacchaeus was saved.  Saved from the hell of hiding.  Saved from the hell of self-shame.  Saved from the hell of fear and anger.  Saved from the hell of a small and stingy life.  Because Zacchaeus took the plunge, he found connection, community, life rich in all the ways that count.  So what’s keeping you in your tree?  May we pray?

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