A Sermon for Covenant
“Who Taught You How to Climb a Tree?”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 3, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“He wanted to see who Jesus was but on account of the crowd, he could not.” I don’t know if any other line could more accurately describe the entire human religious condition than that one. “They wanted to see who God was but on account of the crowd, they could not. We wanted to see who Jesus was but on account of the crowd, we could not.”
Whether you are short or tall, have 20/20 or need glasses, you know what it is like, trying to find Jesus in a crowd, and it ain’t easy. There are so many people to cloud our view. There is always one crowd or another waving posters in our faces that declare Jesus is one who supports their cause, or their politics, or their war. In this country, there is a red Jesus AND a blue Jesus. There is even a purple Jesus for the moderates. There is a green Jesus for the eco-friendly, a white Jesus, for, well, white people. For every cause under the sun, every stance and every platform, there is a Jesus who fits the bill.
And there’s nothing unreasonable about wanting and hoping that Jesus looks and thinks like we do, if he did, then he’d be sure to love us, we’d get to be his, like, favorites, at least that’s how it feels. But move three levels or so beneath your insecurities and it turns out you want to know who Jesus is, for real, unadorned by what you need him to be to feel okay about yourself, but as he really is. You want to know the real thing and then you want to find out that no matter how different he is from you, he loves you like a favorite anyway, and that no matter how wide the gap between his righteousness and yours, you’ve got something of his image irrevocably within you, and there is hope, always hope for you.
Now Zacchaeus, being short-legged and all was having trouble seeing through the crowds to the real Jesus. He could have plopped down on a rock and fantasized what Jesus looked like—probably looked like him, in his head. And he may have done just that for a spell, and that is why he was late and ended up stuck at the back of the crowd—he had stayed home too long, where he was comfortable, imagining Jesus walking through his city, imagining who Jesus was, how he sounded, what he would say. Maybe Zacchaeus nearly daydreamed the day away. But, comfortable or not, this wasn’t ultimately very satisfying, to make God in one’s own image. Sorta boring, actually. Didn’t require much adventure out of ya, didn’t take any imagination, brought very little lasting joy.
So at some point, Zacchaeus got up from the couch and recognized he wanted to see who Jesus was, he decided to find out, but (as we know) on account of the crowd, he could not. To me, this is where the story gets downright delightful:
Zacchaeus did not just stand there at the back of the throng, waiting for the rumors of Jesus to pass down the line and finally reach his ears like a religious game of telephone. He did not ask some friend at the front of the crowd to snap a photo and send it to him in a text. He did not read a book on what it is like to sit at the feet of Jesus. He did not attend a “Who Is Jesus, Really” seminar. He did not take a class or phone a friend or watch a documentary on Neflix. The man climbed a tree.
This grown man, this business man, this rich man, this I-used-to-care-what-everyone-thought man, this I-have-status man, this I-want-to-see-Jesus man hiked up his long garments and wrapped his possibly-aging limbs around the bark of branches and CLIMBED like a monkey or like a child but nothing like a respectable, well put-together man.
What’s not to love about a story like this one, about the spirituality of tree-climbing? If Jesus hadn’t come to him, he would have crowd-surfed to Jesus. He had become like one uninhibited in his seeking. Of course, the crowd wasn’t too pleased, they were a little scandalized by the whole affair, especially by Jesus’ positive response to it, and this is the part of the story where we are reminded that Zacchaeus is a man with a past. But that’s of little consequence! Climbing that tree propelled Zacchaeus right into the abundance of his future and by the time Jesus had looked him in the eye and he had shimmied down in haste, he was more than ready to repent. Have you ever heard a more eager, happy repenter?
The Gospel of Luke is always trying to help us get the picture: that repentance isn’t penance, it’s a party, a happy joyous occasion for the one who was lost, then found, and for the one who does the finding. It’s all over the place in Luke: the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son. Now it is the lost tax-collector whom Jesus finds in a tree of all places and while everyone else is offended and put-out by this discovery and the subsequent embrace, this does not stop Jesus or Zacchaeaus from smiling or from enacting the man’s salvation.
Today is All Saints Day, and when we hear the word, “saint,” we tend to think of, well, saintly people, the kind with figurative halos, few mistakes, admirable consistency, Christ-like demeanor through all their lives. But as we remember and commemorate and give thanks today for the saints, I ask you not just to think of all the nearly-perfect people you have known, but also, do not forget who taught you how to climb a tree. Do not forget the person who taught you to live passionately, to break decorum to seek the holy.
Who was it, with their quirky eccentricities, that taught you not to follow the crowd but to march to the beat of a different drum? Who was it in your life that wasn’t afraid to live large, but when they erred and knew that they erred, they repented fourfold and with joy? Making amends is a lost art in this world, so if you have known someone with the courage to enact reconciliation—even if it was near the end of their life, after 5000 mistakes—that is a person to learn from and emulate.
Often we are most affected—not by the seemingly put-together people in our life—but by the broken people who nevertheless choose courage and risk, who keep seeking, keep learning, keep growing, keep getting more generous, keep apologizing when apologies are called for but never apologize for living boldly. It is the Zacchaeus-like saints who teach us that though God may be different from our understanding, we have nothing to fear in reaching towards God, that in our reaching, we will find that we are loved, that we are saved, that we are given the energy to change.
And this is the blessed irony of it all—though the swarming crowds keep us from seeing and knowing God, it is almost guaranteed we will not find God without the help of the individuals who point us to God. If it weren’t for Zacchaeus in a tree, giving us permission to do the unexpected, if it weren’t for the unlikely saints setting us free to be ourselves in search of God, if it weren’t for people bearing something of God’s image right before our eyes, we might never know the love of God any other way, expect for them.
In gratitude for all of them,