March 24, 2019: "Were You There In The Tree"?

March 24, 2019                                                                                         Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN

Were You There in the Tree?

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “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.”

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

And a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree

For the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way

He looked up in the tree,

And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down,

For I’m going to your house today,

I’m going to your house today!”

I love this little children’s song! But one problem with this song is we don’t learn what a scoundrel Zacchaeus is . . .

When we meet Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, he is a tax collector. This means that he is a Jew, but he works for the Roman oppressors. He is a traitor against his own people. Tax collectors at this time are reviled because they collect taxes from their people to return to Rome, but they can demand any amount they want. They are known for keeping an unjust cut for themselves before returning to Rome what Rome requires.

Jericho, at the time of today’s story, is an urban center with many travelers passing through. Travelers are taxed upon entering the city and again as they leave. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. Not only does he get a cut of the taxes he personally collects, but he gets a cut of all the taxes collected from those who work under him. Not surprisingly, Zacchaeus is rich. He has made his wealth off the backs of the poor. He knows this, and so does everyone in Jericho. Zacchaeus, due to his wealth, is likely well known in the community, but deeply despised. A guy like Zacchaeus doesn’t have many real friends. Maybe he has some people who try to cozy up to him because of his riches—but his is undoubtedly a lonely life.

Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus wasn’t the only one passing through, as thousands of Jews would be passing through on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. The streets are crowded as Jesus and his growing band of disciples make their way through the city. Jesus’ reputation precedes him—he is becoming quite well known as a teacher and healer. Zacchaeus, like others along Jesus’ path, is curious to catch a glimpse. Maybe he tries to move to the front of the crowd—but the crowd, in their disdain of him, will have nothing of it. Zacchaeus is curious enough to become childlike—to abandon his pride to climb a tree to get a bird’s eye view of this prophet passing through his hometown.

You know the story. Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus across the crowd. Maybe you like to think of Jesus just knowing who Zacchaeus is because in his divinity he just knows things. I tend to think others pointed out this notorious figure to Jesus: “Jesus, look! (Snidely) It’s Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector.” However Jesus knows who Zacchaeus is, Jesus once again does something incredibly unexpected. He honors this reviled man by speaking to him. And not only that, Jesus chooses Zacchaeus to host him in his home. Fine, upstanding individuals would surely love this privilege, but Jesus chooses to hang with a reprobate.  

Isn’t that just like the Lord?

Here’s what intrigues me about this story:

·         The crowd put Zacchaeus down; Jesus lifted him up.

·         The crowd denigrated him; Jesus celebrated him.

·         The crowd demonized him for who he had been; Jesus recognized him for who he could be.

Because Jesus recognizes something in Zacchaeus that the others can’t see, the (perhaps) wealthiest man in town gives half of his wealth to the poor. Not only that, he pays back those he had cheated four times what he took from them. Zacchaeus is transformed, and countless individuals benefit from his transformation. All it takes is Jesus seeing him for who he truly is, and who he could be underneath the scoundrel everyone else sees.

Several years ago, I read a little book called Balcony People by Joyce Heatherley. The concept was simple, and that’s probably why it has stuck with me all these years. Heatherley suggests there are two kinds of people in our lives: “balcony people” and “basement people.” Our “balcony” people are those people in our lives who rise above the average and often negative individuals we experience in our daily lives. These special people notice the best in us and help us feel better about ourselves and the world in which we live. At the other end of the spectrum are the “basement” people. These are the folks who criticize and make us feel less than. Heatherley offers another way to think about this. There are “affirmers”—people who affirm our value, our worth. They treat us with kindness and respect. On the other hand, there are “evaluators.” While often well-meaning, these folks constantly evaluate our “performance” against their own standards. Each of us have balcony people—affirmers—in our lives. Each of us likely have basement people—evaluators—in our lives as well. It’s difficult to create a life with only balcony people, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could? At best, we can try to surround ourselves with more balcony people than basement people.

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have a lot of balcony people in his life. Most people saw him as a cheat, a scoundrel, and a traitor. But when he encountered Jesus, he met the consummate balcony person. Jesus saw through the negative traits and pejorative type-casting projected onto Zacchaeus. We know little of what transpired between these two men, but we know that Zacchaeus was completely transformed by his encounter with one who saw him and believed in him—who saw a “diamond in the rough.” Zacchaeus was able to lift himself physically into the tree to see Jesus; Jesus, upon seeing Zacchaeus, was able to lift him socially, emotionally, even spiritually. That’s the power of a balcony person!

Who are your “balcony” people? Who are the people who help you respect and believe in your own value as a person? Let me suggest that your “balcony” people don’t have to be living or currently a part of your life. Your list of “balcony” people might include people from your past like a parent or grandparent, a teacher, a coach, a mentor or friend. And lest you forget, Jesus continues to see and recognize that which is best about you. Jesus sees how amazing you are despite how others may try to drag you down.

But if we’re making a list, let us not forget that our list isn’t complete until we recognize that we are called to be a “balcony” person to others. Our list isn’t complete until we name the people we are called to affirm and encourage—and may I suggest that list include those closest to us? It’s easy to be a “balcony” person to people we barely know—so much more difficult with those who live under the same roof.

I think that this “balcony” concept extends to churches. There are balcony churches and there are basement churches. There are churches that affirm people for who they are without judging people based on some set of criteria. There are churches that specialize in judgment—perhaps like me, you’ve walked away from the “basement” expression of religion.

What I love about this church, in part, is that this is a “balcony” church. I’m not the only one who sees this.

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a college choir from my hometown in Tennessee. They were on tour in Florida for their spring break. Following their visit with us, I received a text message from my friend who works there and connected us with the choir:

What an incredible service today! I hope you and the congregation enjoyed the experience with these students. I heard a number of them say this performance was . . . the most special, most energizing, most responsive audience on the tour. One senior said the performance at Chapel by the Sea was the most special in the 4 years she has been in the choir! You and the congregation were exceptional hosts![1 

Chapel, you are a “balcony” church! And the only way that’s possible is that as individuals, you are “balcony” people. As followers of Jesus, you model his knack for affirming people, for pointing out the good inherent in every person. You make me so proud to be your pastor. Not only that, you make me want to grow in my own ability to be a “balcony” person.

The author of Balcony People tells a story about her grandson who became terrified of an unknown sound. A large garbage truck came by the house and screeched to a stop.  Her grandson looked up and yelled, “Hug! Hug!” She said the look on his face said, “Hurry! Hurry!” She writes, “I remember reaching down for him and wallpapering his little body to my chest.”  

We grown-ups are not so different than that little guy. We may not be scared of noise from a garbage truck, but we each deal with fear on a daily basis. What name does your fear go by these days? A diagnosis? Divorce? Discouragement? Depression? Addiction? Loneliness? Loss?

Whatever you’re facing, I hope that maybe I can be a balcony person for you today. Maybe we can be balcony people for each other. Maybe we can wallpaper each other with affirmation and acceptance. This isn’t something new to you—rather an encouragement to keep on being the kind of Christ-followers who can see the potential in those the world calls “scoundrels.” Maybe we can even grow in our ability to see what’s best in one another, lifting each other up out of the muck and mire of judgment and condemnation.

The simple challenge today is this: be balcony people! Let’s be the kind of people our dogs think we are.[2]

[1] Personal message from Diana Canacaris.

[2] Adapted from a quote by J. W. Stephens in Chess With Charizzo.

Debbie Wilson