Do you remember the little song about Zacchaeus? Sing it along with me:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he;
He climbed up in a Sycamore tree,
for the Lord he wanted to see;
And as the Savior passed his way,
he looked up in that tree,
And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down,
for I’m going to your house today;
for I’m going to your today.'”
Of course, you know the rest of the story: Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed to have Jesus as his honored guest that, in gratitude, he promised to pay back four times all the money he had cheated others out of and devote fifty percent of his income to helping those in need.
It turned his life around. And here’s the irony: Zacchaeus was small in stature, yet he stands tall in our memory because of his generosity and good works.
And that’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: Those who stand tall are not necessarily big people, either in stature or worldly acclaim – that is to say, they’re not necessarily the rich and famous––they stand tall because of their compassion and benevolence and willingness to give themselves in service to others.
I’ll give you a couple of examples in just a moment, but first, let’s take a closer look at the story of Zacchaeus.
Luke says he was not only a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector for the region of Jericho. Think of him as a broker with other tax collectors reporting to him and, of course, giving him a sizable cut.
Last week I told you how hated and despised tax collectors were in Jesus’ day. Well, if the people looked down on tax collectors in general, they couldn’t have looked down more so on Zacchaeus. He was at the bottom of the food chain, socially speaking.
Plus, he was short. Not only could he not see over the heads of the others when Jesus passed his way, the others would’ve made sure that he stayed in the back of the crowd. They weren’t about to let this little pipsqueak weasel his way in front of them.
But all that was about to change. Desperate to see Jesus for himself, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up in a tree so that, perched on a branch, he had a bird’s eye view.
In my mind’s eye, I picture children up in that tree sitting alongside of Zacchaeus. Like him, they couldn’t see over the crowd either, and they wanted to get a good look at Jesus. And, if I’m right, when Jesus walked up to the tree, he may have chuckled at the sight of this grown man sitting among the children––and the chief tax collector at that! Imagine.
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The people in the crowd may have laughed, as well. But they didn’t laugh when Jesus announced that he was going to Zacchaeus’ home for supper. To any self-respecting Jew, this would’ve been a no-no, for to go to someone’s home and share a meal with them was to affirm that person as a brother or sister for whom you were willing to lay down your very life to provide for and protect. If Zacchaeus went out on a limb to see Jesus, Jesus went out on a limb to save Zacchaeus.
And saved him, he did. The outpouring of acceptance and love was transforming. No longer would Zacchaeus live out his life as a small-minded, selfish, little person thinking only of himself, from this point on he would live for others and use his power and position and great wealth to befriend the poor and needy.
And that’s what makes him stand tall: Not what he got for himself, but what he was willing to give to others.
The pages of history are filled with the biographies of successful men and women, but the ones we genuinely look to and admire are those who used their success to benefit others and make this world a better place in which to live. Philanthropy, not notoriety, is the key.
Who are some of the people who stand tall in your memory? Chances are––and don’t ask me why this is so––they’re likely to be small in stature.
Take Dr. Fred Craddock, for example. Fred Craddock is, to this day, one of the most powerful and influential preachers in the country. I’ll never forget the sermon I heard him preach on The Prodigal Son at First United Methodist Church in Vernon, Texas. We were spellbound. Never mind the fact that he had to stand on a box to see over the pulpit.
Of course, the whole world stood in awe of Mother Teresa. In her little five-foot frame, she did as much to transform the world into the kingdom of God as any world leader.
Then there was John Danhof. John Danhof was one of my role models in seminary. He was a Ph.D. student in Old Testament and an all-around great guy. He’d had polio as a child and walked with two aluminum canes, half dragging his legs behind him. When he got to where he was going, he’d prop himself up so as to stand as tall as possible. Even then, he only reached 5′ 4″, or so.
John Danhof may have had a frail body, but he had a razor-sharp mind and an indomitable spirit of faith and good humor. I know women who attended the Presbyterian Women’s Conference at Mo Ranch, back when John was the Bible teacher, who still remember the lessons he brought to life.
And I think of Sherry Holloman, my Associate Pastor in Odessa. She was short and petite, yet capable of commanding an army, if called on. I’ll never forget how the phone rang early one Easter Sunday morning. The pastor of the Presbyterian church across town had passed out in the early service and had been taken to the hospital. His illness was not life-threatening, but there was no way he could get back to lead the eleven o’clock service. So, one of the elders called to ask, “Can Sherry come over and help us?”
She agreed, of course, but had no way of preparing an Easter Sunday sermon in less than an hour. Hastily, she took a copy of my sermon, read it on the way across town, and delivered it in her own words. It was a class act. She got the gist of the message and took it from there. I wouldn’t doubt that she left the manuscript in the car. To this day, there are those who’ll tell you it was the best Easter sermon they’d ever heard.
Finally, there’s Susan Phalen, who was our Parish Associate in Bryan. Susan left a long-time position in medical research at Texas A&M to go into the ministry. She graduated from Austin Seminary, then came back to Bryan to accept a call as one of the chaplains of St. Joseph’s Hospital.
She started out with three strikes against her: She was a woman, she was a Protestant, and she looked more like one of the children than one of the professional staff. None of that slowed her down. She knew who she was and what she was called to do, and, in no time, she won the respect of the doctors and nurses and aides and orderlies, she endeared herself to the patients, and she was cherished by the nuns who ran the hospital.
Of course, you don’t have to be a short person to stand tall. All you have to do is let go of your self-centeredness and put others first. That’s what makes others stand out in our memory – not their accomplishments, but their deeds of loving service.
In just a moment, I’ll invite you to come forward and light a candle to honor those who stand tall in your life. In so doing, I hope you’ll take a moment to give thanks …
• for the many ways they graced your life …
• for the ways in which God’s Spirit enabled them to live for others …
• for the Communion of Saints in which we live, surrounded by those who’ve gone before us …
• and for the ways in which God is calling you, even now, to stand tall in faith, hope and love, claiming you as his own by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and inviting you to lay down your life for others to the glory of his name.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.