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 when the Savior passed that way He looked up and said/ 'Zacchaeus, You come down, For I'm going to your house today/ For I'm going to your house today// Zacchaeus was a wee little man/ But a happy man was he/ For he had seen the Lord that day And a happy man was he/ And a very happy man was he
Both this story from the Gospel, and this very infectious children’s song, remind us that there used to be a time when even the mere thought of seeing Jesus sent people climbing into trees. There was something so compelling about the man from Nazareth, something so attractive and inviting that people would do all that they could, even climbing up into trees, just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And as funny as it sounds, in some ways as ridiculous as it looks, it makes sense that people in those days would do all that they could just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He was healing lepers. His preaching was filled with both love and challenge, painting a picture of a new world coming into existence right there in those dusty streets of Palestine. He was challenging the religious leaders and the political powers of the Empire. To quote from our Presiding Bishop, Jesus was a “loving, life-giving, and liberating” man turning the world upside down.
Turning the world upside down. That was a central idea to this year’s Diocesan Convention, where the keynote speaker was in fact Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. If you’ve never heard him preach, well…he might not be Jesus, but he can turn your world upside down too. Central to his work on the national level is the idea that the Church is not primarily an institution. It’s not a governing and legislative body whose primary purpose is maintaining the status quo of the Episcopal Church. He’s pushing us hard to re-imagine the Episcopal Church in such a way that our primary identity becomes, “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”
And what a movement it was. Illiterate fisherman casting off their nets to follow a poor, itinerant preacher who had labored for years as a carpenter. Roman centurions risking their reputations to seek the healing touch of Jesus. Outcasts, people like lepers, tax collectors, and demoniacs, were finally getting their recognition as full human beings, being invited into the party by this rabble-rousing Messiah. Jesus’ entire life was an exercise in turning the world upside down, which, as both our bishop and the Presiding Bishop pointed out, was truly putting it right side up.
And the discomfort that this ‘turning the world upside down’ caused people back then was palpable. 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. For a holy man to be the guest of such a wicked, filthy sinner…well that was just too much for the religious elite who were more comfortable in their temples and synagogues then on the streets with the broken and the outcast. But Jesus didn’t care. He didn’t care what was whispered about him behind closed doors or, in this case, right in front of his face. He didn’t care what the established and expected norms were for the proper behavior of first-century holy men. He was always willing to step outside the box, to be both creative and compelling in his ministry, for the stakes were just too high for him to choose his reputation over the real work of the Gospel. Frankly, I imagine that if the Jesus of the Gospels was running for president today, he’d get even less votes than Mickey Mouse. In fact, in the 2008 presidential election, 11 votes were cast nationwide for Mickey Mouse, actually beating out Jesus Christ as a write-in candidate.
But back in those days, Jesus had yet to be domesticated. He had yet to be manipulated by people with both political and religious agendas. He didn’t have the nearly 2,000 years of baggage he does now. He was a man willing to do all within his power to turn the world upside down, to set it right side up, to illustrate to the world that the ways of God are infused with a loving, life-giving, and liberating power that has come to set the captives free and give sight to the blind. And so, we have the craziness of Zacchaeus climbing in a tree to see Jesus. His desperation. The ‘do whatever it takes’ to see this man. And we also have another kind of crazy, the total “out of the ordinariness” of what Jesus did. You see, it’s not normal to look expectantly into trees for people in need of liberation. We expect animals, birds, etc. But Jesus’ eyes were always on the lookout for the people who were out of the ordinary, who were the outcast. He never shut his eyes to the needs of the people he was called to serve. He was willing to look everywhere, into the branches of sycamore trees, in the cemeteries where demoniacs lived, at the unclean wells of Samaritans…he was willing to do whatever was necessary to turn the world upside down.
So, my brothers and sisters, the question comes to us: what are we doing to turn the world upside down in our proclamation of the loving, life-giving, and liberating love of God made tangible in Jesus Christ? For this Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Let us both pray and act in such a way that the world, when it catches a glimpse of Jesus through us, would say to us, “What you have is what I need. How do I get it?”
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on October 30, 2016. The texts were Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, and Luke 19:1-10.