Once upon a time, we used the term “stature” to speak of our national leaders. Stature indicated a type of large spiritedness and willingness to embrace grand visions for our nation, forgive political enemies, and look beyond ego to the welfare of the nation and the planet. We think of George Washington refusing to become a monarch, and Abraham Lincoln gathering a team of rivals to respond to America’s darkest hour and then seeking reconciliation with those who left the Union and saw him as the symbol of all that was wrong with America. We think of two political rivals – John McCain refusing to call Barack Obama a Muslim, when it would have been politically expedient, and Barack Obama who responded to vicious hatred with grace and dignity. We think of Martin Luther King fighting for racial equality and seeing the holiness of those who threatened him with violence and we think of Rosa Parks, willing to face jail time, because the time had come for freedom.
The times cry out for large spirited people who go beyond ego, self-interest, political ideology, and even religious doctrine to seek justice, mercy, and well-being for their communities, nation, and planet.
Now Zacchaeus was a small man, short in stature. But he made up for it in bluster and bullying. A tax collector for the Roman oppressor, he could threaten anyone in the community with all the weight of Rome; extortion, quid pro quos, and blackmail were not beneath him. He knew people hated him, but he had what was important – money and power!
Still, sometimes you realize that what you thought was important may not really matter in the grand scheme of things. In speaking of the human condition, Augustine, the North African theologian and bishop, describes our innate yearning for God: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Zacchaeus had tamped down that God-yearning, but there was a restlessness that emerged, a 3:00 a.m. moment when in the darkness, he recognized that there was something more than power, pleasure, wealth and entertainment. He looked at his life and discovered that he seldom laughed and barely tolerated his wife and family, and the feeling was mutual. There was a yearning of the spirit for a larger life, more authentic relationships, and greater peace of mind. He was in midlife and mortality was catching up with him: he knew that in a matter of years, he would join the aged and then the deceased.
Is this all there is to life? His bank account and bloviation won’t matter on his death bed!
Zacchaeus hears that a prophet is coming through town. The prophet is an outlier, like him – but for very different reasons – he’s hated by the religious leaders and community establishment. He seems to be a rabble rouser and doesn’t pay attention to the norms of religion and society; he embraces lepers, takes meals with tax collectors, travels with women as well as men, and heals the sick regardless of ethnicity, economics or lifestyle. He speaks from the point of view of Eternity and seems to disregard everything Zacchaeus holds as important.
But there is something about this prophet that is enticing, the vision of a different way of life, a new beginning, letting go of the past, and learning to love.
Zacchaeus is a small man – the size of his soul and his body mirror one another. Until that day. He climbs up a sycamore tree, forgetting all propriety and his place in society, to see this prophet, to take measure of his spirit, to gain a larger perspective.
And then their eyes meet and lock on each other. A look he’s never seen before – welcome, love, compassion, and true power, and then the words “Hurry, come down, I must stay in your house today.” And, “bam,” the spirit that’s been imprisoned for decades bursts forth, the walls of self-protection collapse, the sense of otherness dissolves, and the person he’s been yearning to become comes forth, childlike, heartfelt, and whole spirited. Without thinking, he offers up everything, giving up half of his fortune in a moment, without counting the cost.
Surely, as Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Once a cramped soul, now his spirit is as large as the universe. Once self-interested, he has become a mahatma, bodhisattva, or little Christ, willing to break the down the walls of in and out, saved and unsaved, rich and poor, willing to repent his sins and go forth a free man, free to love, free to be generous, free to begin again, and free to choose God’s way above all others regardless of consequence.
One of my mentors Howard Thurman tells of a mother observing her son’s evening prayers.
Each night my bonny, sturdy lad Persists in adding to his, Now I lay me Down to sleep, the earnest wistful plea: “God, make me big.” And I, his mother, with greater need, Do echo in a humbled, contrite heart, “God, make me big.”
Yes, God make us big! Isn’t that what we really want – largeness of spirit? Our own type of stature, and there is greatness in everyday people like ourselves – caring for spouses who are infirmed or dealing with dementia, sacrificing so our children and future generations have a better life and a healthy world, helping another face the challenges that we have faced, going beyond self-interest to seek justice and planetary healing.
And on All Saints, we remember the saints of this church and of our faith. There is no saint Zacchaeus in the church calendar, but he did great things for God in the years to come. A saint is simply someone who seeks to know and follow God’s way, who cares for others, whose faith in God guides their path. Saints sacrificed to establish this church, move it piece by piece from Phinney’s Lane to this spot. Saints taught Sunday school, loved children, visited the vulnerable and sick, spoke out for abolishing slavery, and for fair housing, and housing for persons with special needs….And we are the saints of our time, looking beyond ourselves, in all our imperfection, trying to have larger perspective than self-interest, sacrificing for causes that will outlive us, and walking with Jesus day by day.
It truly is a matter of size!