"Coming Down From Our Tree"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 31, 2004

Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

     Most of us know what it is like to be driven by our needs.  Needs are an extremely persuasive motivator.  They can cause our emotions to spike like no other force in life.  There are needs that are very observable and drive us to make adjustments in our living patterns. There are also needs that are not so easily recognized that drive us into near madness and despair when they are not identified and responded to. 

     The needs driven by issues in our external world are the easiest to identify.  For example, a woman is facing retirement in six months and her employer came with information that her pension program will present her with a lump sum of approximately $750,000.   Suddenly she is faced with having to make an adjustment she has never had to make. What investment vehicle will best serve her long term interests?  Should she consult a financial planner and be thinking in terms of a revocable or an irrevocable trust?  Her need is immediate and yet she does not want to act in haste.           

     Or, take the circumstance of one of our friends who needs to have a magnificent lawn.  In fact, he obsesses about it.  He followed the Scotts multi-phase treatment program but this year his lawn was dying.  He happened to see a Chem-Gro technician working on his neighbor’s lawn.  The problem was quickly diagnosed when the professional dragged his hands through the decaying turf uncovering a large number of grubs.  Our friend treated his lawn and reseeded in mid-September.  He met his need with a strategy.           

     When certain needs are overwhelming, most of us engage in a swift response.  Even though we tend to resist change, when something enters our lives like a lump in our breast or a debilitating preoccupation with our lengthy commute to work every morning, many of us take action. Our needs are like an invisible nudge that urges us to sail on into deeper waters, to face a new situation with skills we may not have or to enter a new experience out of curiosity.           

     In our lesson this morning, we find an episode where Jesus’ ministered to a very successful tax collector who had a need that was not so apparent.  No doubt Zacchaeus’ wealth provided him with every conceivable material comfort.  Tax collectors did very well for themselves financially and Zacchaeus sat at the top of the flow chart.  He was a chief tax collector. What need drove Zacchaeus to become a participant in this well-known Gospel story? 

     Everything on the surface of his life was in place for Zacchaeus.  His need was different from the kind that would generate a response to receiving a lump sum of money or to a need for better lawn care.  Zacchaeus’ need originated in a place no one can observe.  It was inside of him.  His need may have been evoked by a sense of emptiness while being surrounded by all the symbols of success.  When word came that Jesus was coming, he chose to leave what he was doing in order to see him. Let us review this story again.

     Because of his short stature and his fear that he would not be able to see Jesus, this chief tax collector climbed a sycamore tree.  There he sat.  He had the best seat along the path Jesus intended to walk.  It would be like observing the Fourth of July fireworks by sitting on the steps of the Capitol, something Lois and I did every year when we lived on the Hill. 

     Think about this.  How many of us are up in that tree with Zacchaeus?  While we have heard that Christianity is a contact sport, some of us still find ourselves the consummate observers.  Maybe our commitment ends with an hour or two on Sunday morning.   

     We know the story of Jesus and his teachings extremely well.  In fact, we believe nearly everything that he taught. Many of us, however, sit in that tree as an observer.  Unbeknownst to us, there may be a disconnect between our declared faith and how we interact with our external world.  We may have no heightened sense of responsibility for others.  Our experience is about us.  It is about our receiving.  We are fine and that is all that matters. 

     We understand the opportunities offered by St. Matthew’s as many of you experienced last Sunday, but we may still find ourselves sitting in that proverbial tree watching what others do.  “At this point in our lives,” we reason, “this more passive response best fits our insane schedules.”  

     Something very unique, however, happened to the chief tax collector.  Jesus walked over to the tree and looked up.  He called Zacchaeus by name and made a request.  “Hurry down from that tree,” Jesus said, “I must stay in your house today.”  The author of Luke wrote that, “Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed Jesus with great joy.” Joy? What an interesting response for a man who had no apparent, no observable need! 

     For some people, it takes a request or an invitation to get them to come down out of the tree.  What would have happened to Zacchaeus had Jesus not targeted him with a request?  No doubt he would have climbed down after Jesus had passed by and gone back to his well-rehearsed life style along with a need that signaled that his life was empty of meaning.  I wonder how many people bypass enormous growth opportunities because no one asked them to come out of their tree? 

         Earl Nightingale once told a story about his neighbor in Florida who lived across the street.  The couple had moved there several months before.  One morning Earl noticed that his new neighbors were preparing to move back to Minnesota.  He went across the street to speak to the husband who was working in the yard. He asked what had changed their minds about Florida.

     His neighbor said, “It’s my wife.  She’s simply not happy here. She cannot break into the social climate.  She’s not been invited to any functions and has had no interaction with any of the people.  She needs to be a part of this community and no one is allowing that to happen for her. We’re going back to Minnesota.”

     Earl was curious about his new friend’s analysis of the community and spoke to many of his immediate neighbors.  Earl had found his neighborhood extremely friendly.  Each one with whom he spoke knew the woman.  They perceived her as aloof and reclusive. They seldom saw her.  She presented them with no opportunity to become acquainted.  The couple was moving based solely on a perception by the wife who may not have learned that we get back what we give.  

     Jesus, in the flesh, can no longer target people and ask them to climb down from their trees.  He asked us to do that when he gave his disciples The Great Commission that sent them into the world.  It is our task to invite people.  This is our moment in history to involve people in what will change their lives and the lives of others. 

     The other day I received an e-mail from Ron and Edith Hilliard.  You may recall that, when they came to St. Matthew’s, within a month Ron became an usher and Edith joined the choir.  I inquired why they had gotten involved so quickly.  He said, “We are never in one place very long, and if we are going to make a contribution, we have to get involved as soon as possible.”  Those words are music to any pastor’s ears. 

     As you may recall, the Department of Agriculture moved them to Wisconsin.  After a year’s time, they have now moved to Guam where Ron is a Deputy Director.  For them life is too short to wait for an invitation before they reach out with both hands to embrace what is in front of them.  It is we who must reach out to others, and that is what the Hilliards have learned how to do. Those two never spent much time in a tree. 

     There is a reason for that and it is the same reason that made Zacchaeus change the direction of his life.  He spent time in the presence of Jesus.  He listened as Jesus reacquainted him with insights and a sense of mission from their mutual heritage and tradition that Zacchaeus had either misplaced or forgotten. 

       There is no record suggesting that Jesus asked him to change anything about his life.  If this assumption is correct, what happened during that afternoon and evening that caused Zacchaeus to stand up and say, “I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much as I have taken.” His words suggest that a complete shift had taken place in the direction of his life!  What would cause him to do that?  The answer is that an unrecognized need had just been met during his moments with Jesus.  No doubt, Jesus made him think. 

     Jesus may have walked around his palatial home and asked a number of questions. “Zacchaeus, tell me, has your beautiful home, your magnificent clothing and your delicious food enabled you to find peace?  Who would you be, Zacchaeus, if the Romans suddenly took what you own away from you? How close are you to God in whose image you were created?  Have you learned to give yourself away as God does?  Zacchaeus, when you are gone. how will you be remembered?”

      Zacchaeus made a living by receiving money from people.  As a tax collector, he was allowed to increase what people legally owed to Rome by any amount he felt reasonable to cover his time and effort.  What was he giving back?  

     When we do not give, an invisible need begins to grow within us.  Remember, we are created in the image of God who does nothing but give.  When we do not give for whatever reason, we are living counter to the way we were made.  It is no wonder that emptiness sweeps over people with increasing frequency and intensity.  Learning that giving is an absolute “must,” regardless of what anyone believes, is one of life’s most critical lessons.

     Last Thursday, I had my annual interview with our District Superintendent, Mary Jane Coleman.  The subject of children surfaced in our conversation.  She wants to create a program that will teach children how to move away from believing that they are the center of their universe.  This is the age when children begin to learn why it is important to think more of others and a little less of themselves. 

     Mary Jane was shopping with Hannah, her four-year old granddaughter.  Hannah kept asking Grammie to buy her something.  Mary Jane said, “Why don’t you pick out something for your mother that you can give to her?”  Hannah found within that question a significant departure from her persistent need to receive.  Being very precocious, she said, “Okay, but let’s do that after I pick out something for me.”  Mary Jane said, “Hannah will move away from being the needy queen bee only when Hannah is ready and not before.” 

     This same reasoning fits all of us.  Like Zacchaeus, we only become generous when we decide to do so.  In case you have not yet guessed the intent of my sermon, this is my annual stewardship message for our 2005-spending plan for St. Matthew’s.  Monday morning a letter will be sent to the membership of our church inviting everyone to increase his or her financial commitment to St. Matthew’s.  This is your church!

     Our claim of faith does not immediately translate into generosity.  It took an afternoon with the Master for Zacchaeus to realize his possibilities if he reversed his energy flow from receiving to making a commitment to give to others. 

     Zacchaeus started by being an observer who was perched in a tree.  After being with Jesus he became one of his most generous contributors.  Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house today” not because of the amount Zacchaeus promised to give, but because his attitude and spirit had shifted from “me” to “we.”  

     Where are we really with respect to underwriting the financial needs of our church?  A sacrificial gift, defined by one of the professionals with whom I sat last week in Nashville, is one where each donor will question, “How in the world am I going to pay this?” Such a commitment takes faith. 

     Those who take that step learn something very fundamental about what it means to live by faith.  Some of us have not yet learned that.  I am asking each of you to take a risk of faith and make that decision as you fill out your pledge cards this week.  If you are in the tree, by all means come down.  This is your church.  This is your faith community.  Please continue to respond to it as though you own it.  In truth, you do.


    Loving and ever-present God, were we to count the number of opportunities to reflect our vast potential since birth, we would cease to see all else.  We have grown wiser.  We have experienced you in our lives.  We have learned that we reap exactly what we sow.  We have learned from our failures not to define ourselves by the symbols of this world.  Growing older has taught us to mistrust beauty, prosperity and wealth as sources for our guidance.  Heal the fears that magnify our insecurities.  Help each of us to accept the invitation of Jesus to change the quality of our thoughts.  May the work of our faith community become an extension of our lives.  Urge us to recognize that what we value is made visible by how we live.  Amen.


    We come before you today, O God, knowing how many times our faith has transformed moments of pain into lessons of triumph.  Our reversals have taught us patience.  Hindsight has helped us define the "why" of life's many unexpected changes. Loneliness has taught us our need to give more of ourselves to others.  Boredom has provided us with the motivation to make more plans and set higher goals.  How can we ever thank you for creating us the way you have?   

    Each time we achieve anything, it is because we have discovered how to use what you have given us.  We have discovered, also, that the moments in life that have truly mattered have been those when our trust in your love sustained us while our own abilities were weak, frail and undeveloped.  May we always cherish the understanding that with you there is no mountain we cannot climb, no darkness that can permanently surround us, and no misadventure from which we cannot escape.  You are there every step of our journey as we learn how to be more skilled at being the angels in the flesh whom Jesus called, "My disciples."  

    Continue to help us, O God, to create the atmosphere and environment at St. Matthew's where people feel safe, secure, and loved just as we are.  Help each of us to be generous of heart and always eager to serve you.  We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .