I did part of my growing up in a church parsonage in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. We shared a driveway with the church next door, where my Dad was the minister. Across the street was the library where my sister and I spent many, many hours. Down the street, just a few houses away, was the elementary school my sister and I went to and where my mom eventually taught. We knew some of our neighbors better than others, but, as I remember it, few people seemed like strangers there. Even if we didn’t know each other’s names, we knew each other’s faces.
Out in front of our house was a big maple tree I loved to climb. I started on the lower branches but eventually found a great place near the top. There was a branch to sit on, a branch behind me to lean on, and a branch below where I could rest my feet. I would often walk across the street to check out a book, bring it up to the top of the tree, and read for hours.
On other days, I’d read the neighborhood. Years before, the tree had been topped off by a storm. This left spaces among the branches where I could easily see and hear everything. There was always something going on between the church, the library, the street, and the school.
There were packs of kids traveling from one yard to another. Couples walking by arguing one direction, then walking back the other way hand in hand… or vice versa. Folks coming to and from work at the GE plant down the street in one direction or from the bus stop in the other. I heard some conversations between folks coming out of the church that I probably shouldn’t have, but a few I was happy I did. There were the folks walking in and out of the library with piles of books in their arms and the folks sitting out front listening to the music pumping out of their boom boxes. There was an endless parade of delivery trucks of one sort or another. If one of those trucks made a delivery to the church, there was a place through the branches where I could spit right on the roof if I moved my head just right.
From the top of the tree, I learned my neighborhood was alive, beautiful, and complicated. I can’t say I understood all I saw or heard, but it gave me a hint of the complexity of being human and being in the community. I didn’t have the words then, but it showed me how the sacred, profane, and mundane were always swimming in the same waters.
When I read the story of Zaccheaus in Luke, it awakes a bit of the child-like tree climber in me. It says that he climbed a sycamore tree. The kind that grew in Palestine would have been easy to climb with branches near the ground. It is a tree that spreads out and grows about 60 feet tall. We don’t know how far Zaccheaus was up in that tree, but he could have been pretty far up there. We know that he could see Jesus and that Jesus could see him. We know that Jesus called out to Zaccheaus that he would be spending the evening at his home that night, and, as people grumbled, Zaccheaus climbed down and let Jesus know how he would change his life and make things right with the people he had harmed.
But, just before that, I imagine that there were some parts of the story that were left out. I imagine that the tree wasn’t Zaccheaus’ first choice. I imagine he tried to get to the front of the crowd, but plenty of people were willing to make that difficult with firmly planted feet and a sharp elbow or two. Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Romans, and the way he made money was by adding his costs and fees on top of the taxes he collected. It wasn’t an uncommon practice, but his greed and collaboration with an occupying force meant he wasn’t well-liked. No tax collector was. I imagine an annoyed and frustrated Zaccheus deciding to go ahead and climb the tree with equal parts humiliation and indignation. I imagine him up on his perch, waiting for Jesus to come closer. From that perch, I wonder what he saw?
In the gospel we read, the transformative moment comes when Jesus speaks, but I can’t help but imagine that the time in the tree helped prepare Zacheaus for the invitation. Maybe, from that perch, Zaccheus saw that those who wouldn’t let him through the crowd were also standing close to family members Zaccheaus had overcharged for taxes. Maybe, Zacchaeus could see a child who wasn’t getting enough food to eat because of Zacheaus’ collaboration with the Romans. Maybe he could see someone seeking healing who had been made ill by his greed. Maybe he could see angry and weary faces looking up at him and then looking down the road toward Jesus; hopefully, and expectantly. Maybe, from that perch in the tree, Zaccheaus gained a perspective on what he had done. Maybe the time in the tree helped his heart to turn.
Then, maybe what Jesus saw was Zaccheaus looking back at him with sadness, confusion, guilt, and remorse. Maybe, Jesus saw someone whose moral injuries were clear at a moment when Zaccheaus’ grandiosity was fading. Maybe, among all those he saw on the side of the road who were longing to be healed and liberated with love, Jesus saw someone whose healing and liberation could help lead to the wholeness of many others. So, Jesus took a chance.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus, by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house, invited Zaccheaus to be hospitable. The time at the top of the tree gave Zacchaeus perspective and the time at the bottom with Jesus gave Zacchaeus grounding. Zacchaeus’ response wasn’t, “Sure, come on over! Do you have any dietary restrictions I should be aware of?” his response was a reflection of something that, at that point, only he and Jesus knew had happened at the top of that tree.
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
This was Zaccheaus’ response to an invitation for a visit. Jesus’ boldness in inviting himself to Zaccheaus’ house was an invitation to Zaccheaus to be transformed and, thereby, transform his community.
How might Jesus be inviting himself into our lives? We all get stuck in patterns of behaving and relating that we don’t want. We all sometimes feel trapped in cycles of grandiosity and rationalization that can only be sustained by more grandiosity and more rationalization. We’ve all done it. It’s a very human thing. The aspirations within our ambition might be beautiful, but the rationalizations can trip us up and, as Zaccheaus’ story shows us, hurt those our ambitions touch.
The grace of faith is the invitation not for us to dwell in it but for faith to dwell in us. The way we dwell in our faith and practice our faith is important, but the place we make for it within us is even more important. Faith dwelling in us means that other things get crowded out. There are pieces we’ll have to set aside and let go, behaviors we’ll have to change, and relationships we’ll have to adjust. We fill our souls with many things that can make them unhealthy, and faith is some of what can make our souls whole again. Jesus’ invitation wasn’t to visit Zaccheaus’ home but for Zaccheaus to be transformed.
If you are visiting today, you might not know that you’re actually visiting two churches. We’ve been exploring how we might become one church together.
We’re at a critical point in these conversations. We’ve gained perspective about ourselves and each other. We’ve learned more about the written and unwritten histories of our congregations. We’ve learned about our successes and failures. We’ve learned about our strengths and weaknesses. We’re understanding how we might need to change to become something new.
As you’ve heard or seen by now, this Saturday’s Harvest Dinner – in addition to being a lot of fun – will also be a celebration of the harvest of ideas coming from those we empowered to keep this conversation going. It will also be an opportunity to harvest your ideas, hopes, and suggestions.
I do have to say I’m excited to hear all the ways these conversations are starting to emerge. What I’m hearing is something bigger than how our congregations might combine our efforts but how we might, together, transform our churches in a way that invites us to personal transformation, community transformation, and a transformation of our life with God.
That’s not to say there aren’t some hard parts, too. As some of these conversations have progressed – even during my very brief time here – I’ve heard folks talk about what they might have to “Give up.” I get that. I’d be lying if I said there are some things we might have to consider that make me nervous or give me a bit of a pang in my gut. But what’s emerging isn’t just about what we might give up but what we might give ourselves to. This process needs everyone’s input, opinion, and inspiration to continue building a valuable vision that will make some of what we might have to give up completely worth it.
I believe Jesus is standing outside the new church we have yet to create, waiting to be invited in. I believe Jesus is standing inside this new church, inviting our community and us to transformation.
Zaccheaus’ reply to a similar invitation was, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
How will we reply to the invitation Jesus is extending to us?
The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!