Sermon: “Fish in Trees: What’s Next?”

04 November 2007

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
November 04, 2007

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

“Fish in Trees: What’s Next?”

Luke 19:1-10

Prayer:   May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Like Zaccheus, I’ve always liked to climb trees. You do get a better view. One time, when Lela and I were hiking up a steep canyon to look for condors, we decided to take a water break. But instead of sitting on the ground, where we’d seen a few tarantulas along the way, we decided to try the view from the trees. Now these were just scrawny Manzanitas hanging over a desert trail – not the beautiful, bushy, dogwoods at my Nana’s house – but they had nice, smooth bark and, you know, the kind of curvy, branching limbs that make the best seats. Didn’t think they’d be any good for hiding though.

So when we saw the first people come hiking up the trail and pass right under us, it just happened that we were still and quiet enough that they didn’t notice us. They were keeping their eyes on their feet, because the trail was so narrow, and rocky. No one was looking up. But after that, it became a great game. We’d have to fight not to laugh, as they’d stomp on past us – sometimes huffing and puffing, sometimes talking to a friend. But it was amazing. They just didn’t see us, even though we were clearly visible. Sometimes we even dangled our feet down just above their heads, but hardly anyone noticed. The downhill traffic did – they had a different angle. One park ranger did. But most uphill hikers saw nothing. Are we really that blind to the world around us?

Well, that brings us to today’s text. To me, the best thing about this Zaccheus story is not that a rich tax collector climbed a tree to see Jesus. That part seems likely enough – when there’s a big crowd, we look for higher ground. Even a well-dressed businessman today might climb onto a newspaper box to get a better view of a parade. What’s amazing is that Jesus actually looked up into that tree and saw Zaccheus. And more than that, seeing him, he invited him down to join the Jesus movement. When Jesus says, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus could hardly have picked a LESS likely candidate for discipleship.

I think you know how hated tax collectors were back then, by just about everyone. I had a close friend growing up whose dad worked at the local IRS office, and I know people loved to make nervous jokes about him. But tax collectors in ancient Israel had it a lot worse. My friend’s dad was a decorated WWII veteran – people really admired him. But tax collectors in Jesus’s day were collaborators with an occupying army. They were not only rich and greedy, they were outright traitors to their people.

You also know, I think, that there were many disciples who expected Jesus to literally act as God’s Messiah – the anointed one who, like the great King David, would lead his people in a Holy War against Caesar’s evil empire. Like many Iraqis today, who are resisting our occupation of their country, they were happy to torment, socially isolate, and even kill those who would get rich by making friends with the conquering army.

You see what I’m driving at? When Jesus looked up into that tree and saw Zaccheus looking down at him, he was MUCH more likely to see him as a spy for Rome, or maybe even as a paid assassin, than as a potential disciple. Can you just imagine what the crowd following Jesus must have thought when Zaccheus climbed down and led them back to his house for dinner? Unlike us, they had not heard this Bible story before. They must have thought Jesus was completely insane, or worse, that he had been paid off! Luke’s line, “All who saw it began to grumble,” doesn’t begin to capture the 4-letter words the disciples might have been using behind Jesus’s back. As far as they knew, Jesus was leading them all into a Roman trap. Trust me, if they were a congregational church and had taken a vote on whether or not to follow Jesus to that table – the one that Zaccheus was so very happy to spread for them – they would have had the good sense to be suspicious and hold back. I assure you, the motion would NOT have carried.

You know when Jesus called his disciples to be “fishers of humanity,” they did not expect to go fishing in the trees. No. Like us, they knew enough to go fishing in the sea, and probably they knew enough to return to where the fish had been biting before, and at the same time of day, and using the same kind of bait. They didn’t go on hikes with Jesus carrying big nets just in case a fish might fall out of a tree. And yet, there was this miracle: in this story, this very fishy Zaccheus does. He falls right down to Jesus.

Zaccheus was a little man, but for the Kingdom of God, he was a very big fish to catch. And yet, he didn’t
even struggle. He just gets up and does as Jesus asks. Not only does he spread before them a feast, he stands up and announces, “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.” What? Can you imagine us going out on a walk after worship, and then stopping at the first big house we see, inviting the whole church in to eat? Then, not only does our host serve us, he stands up, offers half of all he owns to the mission of our church, and then gives rest away as a refund of excess profits he made in his business! I don’t know about you, but I’m sorry – I find that just slightly harder to believe than the parting of the Red Sea. Talk about your fish story! But what is it Psalm 23 says? “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”? Are we really to sit at our enemies’ table? Are we really to trust them that much? Can we really trust Jesus enough to turn them around? Jesus calls us to fish in some unlikely places.

How many people do we pass by on our way, without even looking up to see them, much less think about whether or not they might need to hear the Good News of God’s forgiving love? Store clerks, waiters, co-workers, neighbors, that nice lady next to us in line at the DMV (or even better, that surly state employee behind the counter!). If this story teaches us anything, it is that we shouldn’t just wait around for people to wander through our church doors. We need to be on the lookout for people who are being excluded from our society, those who look a little lost, especially those who are the hardest to love. They need to know that they are part of something bigger than the cramped fishbowl of their isolated lives. They need to get caught up in the wide net Jesus casts, and dunked in the refreshing and amazing ocean of God’s unconditional love. They need to sit at the table of God’s grace with us, and join us in the feast.

We have a Church Growth Committee because we know that we are called to be “fishers of humanity.” We have Good News that we are supposed to share – in fact, that is why the church was called into existence in the first place. The church, like Zaccheus’s house, is only a stopping place on the road of discipleship; it’s a meetinghouse, not a hideout. It’s a place to nurture disciples in the Jesus movement, to feed us at the table of God’s grace so that we have the strength to go out and fish for more disciples.

So where in Brookfield would Jesus lead us to do his fishing? Where are the tall trees in where fish may be hiding? We need to lift our heads up and look to the future where Christ is guiding us – instead of watching our feet in fear, or blindly yakking to each other, or gazing wistfully back down the road at all the great places we’ve been. This is what vision-setting is all about. This is what we are beginning here this month. Our church will be coming together in some prayerful discernment of the way we believe Christ is leading us. The first step will be our next Program Board meeting, to which you’re all invited, right there in Brooks Hall at 6:30 on Tuesday night, November 13.

We’ll begin our brainstorming then, but we have to remember it’s not just about getting us all into a room, making our arguments, and then taking a vote. It’s not about picking our favorite things to do. It’s not about recycling ideas that worked in the past, or even trying new programs that sound like fun. It’s not about us deciding to set either this goal or that, starting either this project or that one – with the winning idea getting funded, and the loser getting scrapped. Nor is it for me, as your new pastor, to tell you to follow on a wild hunt of evangelism. We are Christ’s church, and Jesus set a vision for us some 2,000 years ago, when he called us to go out and make new disciples.

But he did not call us to a galloping fox hunt. Jesus called us to go fishing, and fishing takes time. It requires patience. We might need a little more quiet, and calm, than we’re used to around this busy place. We might need to stop and think about where in Brookfield the good fishing might be – where lost human “fish” might be flapping and gasping, looking for a peaceful and refreshing pond to call home. Who needs to hear the Good News of God’s love? Who needs to be invited today to God’s table of amazing grace? Christ is waiting for us out there on the road, to lead the way.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

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