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Come Down From Your Perch

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Nov 10

The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Text:  Luke 19:1-10

When our Stewardship committee was considering the theme of “Life and Legacy” for its fall appeal, we remembered Asa Gray, a First Church member and renowned Harvard botanist who donated and planted those gorgeous and rare yellowwoods on our front lawn. This was way back in 1872 when this our 6th meetinghouse was first built.  We thought about those long enduring yellowwoods, not only their branches reaching out, but also their roots dug deep into the soil that we walk atop each time we come here. We remembered that vast network of unseen roots beneath every tree. And we came to see this all as a visual symbol for our lives of faith.  As individuals and as a community, we wondered what keeps us rooted and grounded?  What sustains our own capacity to branch out, to give of ourselves, to bear fruit in the world? We recorded some of our answers in words and images in our annual appeal booklet.  If you didn’t pick one up last week or get one in the mail, there are extras at the doors.  Please take a look.  For now though, and with these overarching themes in mind, lets take a quick look at our story from Luke’s gospel.  Yes, there just so happens to be a tree in the story, a sycamore tree to be precise. And with it, there are deep and inviting questions about how we can manifest a good life and perhaps even an enduring legacy. 

The story begins with a taxman named Zacchaeus climbing a tree.   The text tells us he did it because he was short in stature and he was trying to see who Jesus was.  Fair enough, but I can’t help but wonder if he climbed up there as much to keep a safe distance from Jesus, to step above the fray of the crowd and to leave himself just out of reach.  But Jesus spots him and calls him out!  He tells him to come down from the tree, to hurry down even so he can give Jesus a place to stay.  Whether Zacchaeus is, as the text says, happy to welcome him, or he’s just being polite, or he’s shaking in his sandals in fear (which is the least of what I’d be doing!), Zaccheaus does as Jesus says.  He comes down. I want us to pause there and notice that movement.  I learned this week that the Eastern Orthodox reads this text on the last Sunday before Lent.  On that day they celebrate the divine call to humility.   For them, Jesus’ call to come down from the tree symbolizes an invitation to humility.  Zacchaeus, come down!  Humble yourself!  Just cause you are shorter, or richer, or more judged by the townspeople, doesn’t mean you are any different from anyone else, or that you have a better vantage point on the action.  Come down from the high place where you put yourself! 

Tall or short, I wonder how many of us come to church so perched, whether we are aware of it or not.  How many of us at least sometimes find ourselves holding this whole church thing at arm’s length? Whether conscious or unconscious, we too may sometimes prefer to have a little distance lest Jesus or someone claiming to be his follower asks something of us, maybe even demands that we come down from our ivory tower, from our branch above the fray, asks that meet each other face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart.  This is an invitation not only to humility, but to vulnerability as well.  Don’t think of your lot as so different from neighbors.  Humble yourself, and open yourself to people who want to know you, to share a meal with you, people who may even want or need to stay with you for awhile.  Herein lies the first round of invitation in this text – an invitation to humility, to vulnerability and intimate connection to God’s love.

A second invitation is like it.  Once he’s come down to encounter Jesus, he finds himself surrounded by a hostile crowd grumbling with judgment of his chosen profession.  As chief tax collector, Zaccheaus was entitled to an off-the-top cut of the all the money he collected for the Roman empire.  His wealth was a direct result of what he had chosen to take from every person in that crowd.  No longer able to keep his distance from them, and standing face to face with Jesus, God with us, face to face with God’s boundless compassion, something in him shifts.  It’s as if he loses the script of who he was.  Standing in the face of that piercing love, he realizes in the core of his being that he’s got more than enough to get by, that the poor are all around him, that’s it better to give than to receive.   Without a word on the matter from Jesus, Zaccheus experiences a moment of seemingly spontaneous generosity. “Half of my possessions”, he says!  Zaccheaus remembers who he really is, not just a taxman, but a person of faith who has roots in a Jewish tradition and in texts that he head learned in his synagogue, texts that called for him to repay 4 times those he defrauded.  Surely the generosity that followed became the stuff of legend in Jericho!  And the pattern was set.  Hear Jesus invitation to come down and draw near to the heart of God’s love. Practice humility. Practice vulnerability. Practice unflinching honesty.  From these roots dug deep, out of that face to face and heart to heart connection with God’s love, a new and surprising generosity will grow and branch out and leave both a legacy and a model for others to follow!

In 1969, Fred Rogers, that is Mr. Rogers to most of us, went to Capitol Hill and offered a roughly 6 minute testimony before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications.   This was in response to proposed cuts to funding for PBS. He spoke about the need for social and emotional education for children.  He spoke about how programs like his taught important things like self control and encouraged kids to be happy and productive citizens. Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who had a reputation for being gruff and impatient, was chair of the subcommittee, and he never heard or nor met Mr. Rogers before that moment.  At the end of his testimony, Mr. Rogers asked permission to share the lyrics of a song from the show.  The song was called:  What Do You Do with the Mad that you Feel?  It went like this (and don’t worry, I won’t sing it!)


What do you do with the mad that you feel

When you feel so mad you could bite?

When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...

And nothing you do seems very right?


What do you do? Do you punch a bag?

Do you pound some clay or some dough?

Do you round up friends for a game of tag?

Or see how fast you go?


It's great to be able to stop

When you've planned a thing that's wrong,

And be able to do something else instead

And think this song:


I can stop when I want to

Can stop when I wish.

I can stop, stop, stop any time.

And what a good feeling to feel like this

And know that the feeling is really mine.

Know that there's something deep inside

That helps us become what we can.

For a girl can be someday a woman

And a boy can be someday a man.


As soon as Mr. Rogers finished the song, Pastore, admitting that he had goose bumps for the first time in a very long while, said: "I think it's wonderful.  I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million."  Talk about surprising generosity.  Seeing the footage of this online everyone but Mr. Rogers looked shocked! The PBS line item was an increase from 9 million to 22 million!

I confess: I’ve been wondering myself what to do with the mad that I feel lately. Whether it’s the silly mad I feel when driving behind a slowpoke, or the mad I feel about the fact that our Congress just cut food stamps benefit for some 47 milllion Americans, many of whom are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One woman who is disabled said this week she calculated she now only had 88 cents for each meal.  "They just keep cutting and cutting. Eighty-eight cents -- you cannot even buy a can of tuna for 88 cents. Apparently, our current Congress forgot what they learned from Mr. Rogers, that these are the people in our neighborhood (or maybe some have just been redistricted out of their neighborhoods).  I did punch a bag about the food stamps thing this week, literally, as part of my weekly exercise.

But setting aside the mad I feel, and the mad I know many of you feel for these and other reasons, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Pastore came to mind as I was thinking about Jesus and Zaccheaus. Pastore, like Zaccheus, was sitting in the presence of one who embodies kindness, compassion and love for all God’s children. Not Jesus, mind you, but one his better followers, who was trained as a Presbyterian Minister before working at PBS.  He accepted Mr. Rogers invitation to be vulnerable, to be like a child again, to feel those goose bumps, to feel the yearning in himself to have songs like that sung to him.  He accepted the invitation to humble himself as well, to come down from his position of power, to let himself be human, to stop, stop, stop his usual ways of being.  He surely had a moment of honest reckoning too, perhaps of weighing how much money the government had just spent on the Vietnam War, about this being one way to repay that debt for the sake of the future of our country. Ultimately, out of a grateful response for that “come to Mr. Rogers” moment, out of that mixture of humility, vulnerability and honesty, there arose a surprising generosity of spirit!  Looks like you just earned the 20 million!  Who knew Mr Rogers was such an effective fundraiser!

The thing is:  Zaccheus didn’t know Jesus before Jesus called him down from the tree.  Pastore didn’t know Fred Rogers before that Testimony. We might wonder how many of our current legislators don’t know those whose food stamps they recently took away.  But when we stand face to face with a human embodiment of God’s love and compassion, it calls us down from our own high places to the very ground of our being, of who we are and why we are here. Though we may not have the privilege of face-to-face encounters with Jesus himself, we can sense his calling us out of our high places.  We can sense it when we dig into the roots of our tradition, as we learn our sacred texts and sing hymns of God’s love.  We can sense this invitation through a sacramental moment that softens our hearts, perhaps moves us to tears, gives us a sense of communion with all our siblings in the Spirit.  We can sense it through out tears of joy for the Brenner family just baptized!  We know it when we hear a genuine testimony of faith like the one we will soon hear from Adwoa. Whatever the experience is, we too are regularly invited to come down from our perches, to enter into genuine relationship, to be humble and vulnerable and honest and most of all grateful for God’s love which lies at the root of it all. 


It’s that time of year when we at First Church make appeals of our members to pledge support to this community of faith.  Next week is our pledge Sunday.  The question before us, indeed the invitation is this: how can we continue to graft ourselves onto to that enduring tree of God’s love? How can we add to the strength of the roots that underlie this community so that we can continue to branch out and share God’s love with the world!  Nancy and I are far from giving up half of what we own, but for the last few years, we’ve built up to a practice of giving a tenth and then some, almost all of it to the church.  Can we afford it?  Probably not.  Do we resist the message to set aside more for college, for retirement? Yes. But do we know in our heart of hearts that its right to thing to do, to share our resources to support this family of faith that nurtures one another and works for God’s justice in the wider world? Absolutely. For us, these practices of grateful giving, both roots and branches, are as much a part of the lasting legacy we want to leave our children as is anything we might try to keep for ourselves. 

I invite you to take some time this week in prayerful consideration to consider what is your grateful response to God’s invitation, and to ours.  Imagine yourself standing face to face with Jesus, or even with one of his better disciples like Mr. Rogers! Consider where you are perched and come down to the common ground of our life together. Feel the ways that this community nurtures that something deep inside that helps us become what we can!   Practice humility. Practice vulnerability. Practice unflinching honesty.  See what happens, and let God invitations unsettle and surprise you.  And, let yourself be surprised by your response! Amen.

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