I once had a job where my most important asset was not my friendliness, or attention to detail. My most valuable skill was my willingness to climb. The back room at the toy store was very narrow, and filled with three sets of floor to ceiling industrial shelving. When a shipment would arrive it would fill the two of the narrow aisles, with 6-foot-high stacks of boxes. I would climb up the shelves and brace myself in varying configurations, and as quickly as possible relocate all the contents from the boxes to the shelves.
The gospel reading today tells us that Zacchaeus was a petite fella, and I find nothing unusual at all about his tree climbing strategy. Even if it is ‘undignified’, now and then. There are a few things we know about Zacchaeus and volumes that we do not. We are given his name, and a place: Jericho. This episode is situated in time and can be found on a map, being one of the last encounters of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Not only do we know his name, we also know he was a wealthy tax collector. We know that in Jesus’ society wealth would bring respect, but collusion with the occupying empire would not.
We can tell that Zacchaeus was a notorious person, you can see it by the way the crowds do not let him through. As a tax collector he interacted with all zones of society and was therefore considered unclean, a rich outcast. It is fair to say that Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus, and the Jesus movement. The Jesus movement is what scholars today sometimes use to name the earliest phases of community and discipleship around Jesus. I wonder what it was, what sent this derided and privileged man out into the streets, pushed him into a crowd of people who didn’t like him at all. What part of Jesus’ life, what part of his word and welcome draws anyone out of their comfy home and into the streets, and then, daring to scamper up sticky lumpy tree? There is something about that climb, that striving to do something, anything, to get a glimpse of this movement that calls to him, there is something unmistakably aspirational about it.
We don’t know if he had any friends or family, but I assume he had servants. I imagine him heading out, and telling a household servant something like, ‘well, I am going to go check this out. It is important for me to know about people like this Jesus. I had better go see what all the fuss is about.’ I imagine that because that is my place in this story. I did something like that once upon a time. Early in my young adult encounter with this Jesus Movement, soon after I went from open agnosticism to participating in a church community, when it was still new to me, well, I claimed to other people in my life that I was doing sociological research. ‘Because religion and the Bible are important influences on society and I should know more about them.’ I actually said that, and I might have even believed it. So I stepped out into my crowded street and I climbed my tree, and sought to see Jesus. And he saw me in there, and drew me out of the tree, and invited himself into my life.
What sent you into your ‘tree’ to seek Jesus? Perhaps you have no idea why you keep climbing these trees or this tree in particular. What hunger sent Zacchaeus up that sycamore tree? Was it a desire for wholeness? Refuge? Was he seeking a group of outsiders with which he could possibly no longer be an outsider? Or was it a hollowness that needed to be filled with a more wonder-full way of living? Zacchaeus had been on a spiritual journey his whole life. He may not have known it, but he was, just as I believe that everyone is. We are all on a lifelong journey of faith formation, even in the parts where we say there is no road, or cannot see the forest for the trees. Somedays we see the vistas and the rainbows and feel the unity of the forest, and sometimes we are just trying to sludge through the inches of decomposing muck on the floor.
Tree climbing is a lovely metaphor for faith formation. Trees are symbols of nourishment, refuge, transformation, and holy insight. We have been blessed with a home that has a solid trunk made of living words and a living heritage, with branches that lead us up and into the edges of God’s longing for this world. The FIG SYCAMORE that Zacchaeus climbs is a specifically a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Our tree should be like that tree, a way of continual reawakening, lifelong striving and wondering, and a practical tool for when we are brought up short.
I assess formation in my life and the places I serve by the promises of the baptismal covenant. CONTINUE, RETURN, PROCLAIM, SERVE, STRIVE. Aspirational formation should continue in learning, worship and prayer. It keeps studying the branches of the tree and wonders where it can climb to next. It puts up tire swings and helps neighbors to enjoy the ride. CONTINUE. When we fall into sin we are a people who return, confess and forgive, like the arms of a tree as welcoming as Jesus’: limbs of understanding seeking wholeness. How am I returning? I also look for proclaiming Good news in word and action. Is this a community that SERVES with Jesus, that learns and grows through serving neighbors and seeking the common good? We certainly SERVE, but is it a limited few and could it be more of us? And I look for striving. Aspiring from the roots. roots are there for trees to live and grow. Their energy is upward and their being is intertwined. Roots pull in nutrients and send them up for sharing in courage and daring to live for others. Roots strive to offer strength to breathe God’s dream in our leaves. How will we STRIVE this year, and how will we prepare ourselves to always STRIVE?
You climbed a tree, I can tell because you are here. Jesus is calling to you to examine your place in his movement, this dream, this hope, this way. How can this gospel today lead you to renew a promise for lifelong formation for all, including yourself? CONTINUE RETURN PROCLAIM SERVE STRIVE. Remember how Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree? This isn’t an American type of sycamore, like the one that was planted around here and produces those yellowish seed balls that are easily crushed underfoot. This West Asian sycamore tree is a fig tree, and its name in Hebrew shik-ma seems to be rooted from the same place as words such as restore and regenerate. When the wind exposes this sycamores roots, this tree will stretch its roots deeper into the earth. When the sand covers its low-lying branches, they transform into roots, which give rise to new trees.
The trees we dwell in together are made of strong sycamore wood and can bear our brokenness and support our questions and renew our hearts. Jesus sees us in this restoration tree. Maybe you don’t like heights, yet here we are and God’s people are looking up at us. Dare we welcome them up into this holy tree? Aspirational Membership is the heart of our stewardship campaign and one of the pillars is a commitment to lifelong formation. We are a lifelong tree climbing, baptismal living, wholeness seeking Jesus Movement group of people. Can we dig deeper, letting branches become roots? Can we sprout new trees, and absurdly strive for renewal? How will we reach to do this all the way back to the heart of God? Let us sit in that tree for a moment and ponder psalm 46. Be Still And Know that I am God.
October 30, 2016
St. Paul's Episcopal Church