His name was Rick, and I met him after he transferred to our high school at the beginning of our junior year; and for a couple of years there he was among my closest friends. Looking back on it, however, I have to say that Rick was unlike anybody I’d ever met before, and actually, a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, he was extremely likeable: fun, friendly and outgoing with a ready sense of humor; the guy had an enthusiasm that was contagious! But he could also be loud, egotistical, overbearing, and patently obnoxious at times! He was incredibly impulsive, his big mouth was always getting him into some sort of trouble, and more than once the rest of us would end up catching some heat with teachers or parents over whatever it was Rick had done “this time.” He could drive you crazy; in all honestly, some days you’d see Rick coming toward you and you’d just want to run the other way!
But he also had a big heart; truth be told, Rick just wanted people to like him, and he’d go to great, if misguided, lengths to make that happen. So those of us who were his friends kind of put up with it because you couldn’t help but like the guy; and also because every once in a while you’d catch a glimmer of something really special in him, and discover who Rick really was beneath all the bluster.
Rick was this huge, burly football player type, and he was, to say the least, an imposing presence; but what I remember is that within this hulk of a man beat the heart of a five year old! There was this one very snowy night our senior year, when a group of us were walking up the street to some school event or another – it must have been a banquet or something, because I remember that we were all dressed up – when suddenly Rick let out this ear-splitting Tarzan yell and proceeded to leap head first into a nearby snowbank! And as that weren’t enough, then he rolled around in the snow until he was covered with snow from head to foot, so that he finally emerged from the snowbank, Rick rather resembled a well-dressed abominable snowman!
What I recall is that the rest of us were way too cool for this; but Rick just smiled this broad, goofy grin and said, “Isn’t this incredible? This is great!” He’d gotten caught up in this child-like joy of new-fallen snow, so it didn’t matter that ten minutes later, he’d be dripping wet in the high school auditorium!
And the thing is, this wasn’t unusual; in fact, this kind of stuff happened all the time! Rick would just lose himself in those moments; but I came to realize that it was in those times of joyous abandon that Rick was the happiest and when he was the most himself. All the blustering behavior, all the vain attempts at trying to be accepted and loved: all those things got lost in the snowbank, so to speak; and in the process Rick found himself – and we had the joy of getting to know him and love him as he really was!
Thinking of Rick always reminds me of something that Frederick Buechner once said about salvation: how it is an experience first, and then a doctrine; and how in the experience of salvation, like so many of the important things in life, two things happen: “(1) you lose yourself completely, and (2) you find that you are more yourself than usual.” Salvation, writes Buechner – this wonderfully intense experience of God’s love – is the kind of experience that “you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair;” an awareness “that makes it worth having been born just to have happen.” It’s that incredible moment that you know for absolute certainly, and perhaps much to your own surprise, that you are exactly who God intends for you to be!
And that, friends, is exactly what happened to Zacchaeus.
What we know about Zacchaeus – that is, aside from what the Sunday School song tells us about his being “a wee little man and a wee little man was he” – is that he was a chief tax collector for the Romans in the city of Jericho. Remember how last week we spoke of how the tax collectors of that era were basically extortionists for the Roman government? Well, where that was concerned, Zacchaeus was pretty much “the Godfather!” He was among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Jericho; he was also one the most despised. So basically his whole life was a contradiction, and Zacchaeus knew it; and he literally ached for something different, something better, something more. And maybe, just maybe, he could find it in this man Jesus that everybody was talking about
And so when news spread that Jesus was coming into town, Zacchaeus knew he had to be there. The only problem was that yes, he was a bit “short of stature” and there was no way he’d ever be able to see over the heads of the crowd; so in one of the great comic moments of the Gospels, up the Sycamore climbed Zacchaeus, which did provide a better view but also managed to make him look like some demented monkey in front of every “hater” in Jericho! But here’s the thing; Zacchaeus could not have cared less, so intent he was to see Jesus, so focused he was on finding whatever it was Jesus might have to offer him. Zacchaeus had truly “lost himself” in that moment: suddenly, he’s no longer the wealthy and powerful chief tax collector of the city of Jericho; he’s just this guy who’s lost, utterly alone, deeply yearning, and hanging on for dear life on some drooping sycamore branches!
But here’s the best part of the story: Jesus does come by, and the moment he spies Zacchaeus up in the tree Jesus calls out to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And then, just as Zacchaeus is scrambling down from the tree – I’m guessing that he actually fell out of the tree, probably out of pure astonishment (!) – and the crowd of onlookers hasten to point out that Jesus was about to become the houseguest of this man who was not only the local mobster but also who had clearly gone a little bit crazy, Jesus is just as quick to point out that “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
The point is that Zacchaeus had been saved – by losing himself in that determination to get to Jesus, Zacchaeus had found himself as the person that God had created him to be all along: God’s very own beloved, forgiven and free. And more himself he’d ever been before, Zacchaeus was now ready to live the kind of life he’s always wanted to live, making amends with those he’d defrauded; even giving half of his possessions to the poor! Jesus was right: this day, salvation had indeed come into the house of Zacchaeus.
You know, a story like this makes me wonder how many of us have found ourselves looking in the mirror only to discover we no longer recognize the person we see there. I suspect that there a few of us here who are silently but painfully aware that somewhere along the line we misplaced the values and standards we once held close to our hearts, and that over time and circumstance our priorities for life and living have shifted, and not for the better; that we are who we are, but we’re really not who we’re supposed to be. How many of us here today, I wonder, have hearts that ache for something more for our lives…
…and if that’s the case, beloved, may I suggest that now might be a good time to go climb a sycamore tree? Or taking a cue from my old friend Rick, to go jump in a snowbank? Or, in the absence of any snow, at least go run through a pile of leaves (I happen to know that there’s a pretty good sized leaf pile up the street!)? Or for that matter, friends, let’s talk about being bold and impulsive enough to step out of our comfort zones long enough to reach out in love to someone out there who nobody loves; or making the decision to be just “crazy” enough to actually live out our lives “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God” in everything we do; or, if I might borrow a thought from our stewardship verse this year, to be foolish enough to give of ourselves and our resources in the same manner that God has surprised us: with a fresh heart that invigorates our work and enlivens our speech.
That’s because, spiritually speaking at least, it’s good to be foolish! It’s great to be running through leaf piles and jumping into snowbanks! Because what that kind of “holy foolishness” represents is the determination to be where we are and who we are before God! It’s embracing our salvation in Christ Jesus; the supreme, sufficient, definitive and indestructible fulfillment of our very being! It’s losing yourself, and then finding yourself: becoming brand new, but actually discovering in the process that you are what you’ve always been, and what that is is… beautiful!
It’s always seemed to me, you know, that this is precisely the place where we begin as believers; and this is the firm footing on which all of us together stand as the church of Jesus Christ: a people who are beautifully themselves by God’s love and grace, and are just foolish enough to show it to the world. So let us start today, beloved; let’s find a few sycamores to climb and some good news to proclaim. Let’s lose ourselves in Christ’s presence in the broken bread that we might find ourselves in the cup of blessing; and let’s show our joy as persons and as a people; let’s show our love; and let’s be the children of God that we’ve always been meant to be!
For this will be the sign for all around that salvation has indeed come into our house – and our lives – this day!
Thanks be to God!
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry