By Rev. Joan Kessler
This morning’s story has me thinking about tree climbing. I was never much a tree climber, preferring to leave it to my adventure-seeking friends and family members and I was quite happy to watch from the safety of the ground. But I wondered this week what I maybe missed out on. Perhaps you know this feeling as well. Were you a tree climber? Did you scale up the trunk, calculate your footings, go to the nearest branch to perch or continue on up as high as you could go?
The poetry of Mary Oliver always helps me pull on theological threads. This morning, I share with you her reflection on whether or not to climb a tree and the argument she is having inside herself. It’s entitled Green, Green is My Sister’s House:
Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent away to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.
But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, so she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly.
I’d try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and not want to go back. So
if someday you can’t find me you might
look into the tree or – of course
it’s possible – under it.
Oliver captures the essence of this dilemma… to climb the tree and take a risk or to remain on the safety of the ground and keep your viewpoint the same. She is struggling with a longing to be wild and free and take a chance or keep herself safe. In her mind she is already gone up the tree to be with her Green Sister as she refers to her. But she suggests to the reader that there is a really good chance she might just stay on the ground in the safety that she obviously values.
Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, writer, and artist that lived in the 19th century. I have been reading one of his most famous works, Walden, for some time now. The book is about his two-year stay in a cabin he built for himself by a lake in the woods. Drawing on his passion for philosophy, he reflects on his experiences of nature, solitude, work, and removing himself from the hustle and bustle of city life. I went to Thoreau for some insight on our spiritual affinity we have for trees.
Thoreau immortalized them. To him, trees were part of his inner life. They were the nobility of the natural world, upright and virtuous. They represented true religion, with their grounded root systems and tower spires that touched the sky. He once said that we are earth huggers, we rarely consider what is above us. He recounted his experience of climbing a “shite pine on the top of a hill, and though I got well pitched and was well payed for it, I discovered new mountains in the horizon I had never seen before…”
To Thoreau, trees were more God-like than any other living being. He wrote and drew his experiences of living among the trees. These observations of trees excited Thoreau and he said that a new idea is like a bud on a branch reaching up for the light and drawing down into the earth for nourishment. For him, trees were an affirmation of nature’s deep impulse for renewal.
So, this brings me back to the gospel reading for today. The story we know so well from our Sunday school days and the songs we used to sing about Zacchaeus being a wee little man in a Sycamore tree. But he was the chief tax collector who kept gaining more and stealing more. As a Jew, he gained material wealth at the expense of his community. He was despised and rejected and ridiculed by his kinfolk.
But this day, I wonder if Zacchaeus hungered for something more. What moved him to make his way through the hostile crowd and climb a sycamore tree? What longings and desires were stirring from deep within himself to do something a bit ridiculous like climb a tree? A grown man going out on a limb… literally. Maybe Zacchaeus was ready to live an authentic and honest life, and wealth and his important job no longer satisfied him. Something was missing and the place he needed to find it was up in a sycamore tree.
Zacchaeus has a change of heart. He wants to see Jesus, so he climbs the tree to get a better view. But what he ends up finding is a new perspective. And then Jesus finds Zacchaeus, up in the tree, and he asks the tax collector to come down because he is going to stay at his house that night. Zacchaeus is overjoyed by the Jesus’ invitation; this outcast is the one whom Jesus wants to visit and spend time with. The one on the fringes of the community moves into the center and is upheld as the ideal. That’s the way the kin-dom works. By response to Jesus’ invitation, Zacchaeus pledges to give half his riches to the poor and anyone he defrauded he will repay four times as much. Jesus announces that today, salvation has come to this house – in this very present moment. There is no judgment only acceptance for who Zacchaeus is. Perhaps a healing of his invisible wounds that he has carried with him. Jesus invites him to restart his life with an identity and self-worth that is future-oriented and his former occupation and past infractions are left behind and no longer remembered.
How many of us are thinking about climbing a tree right now? Sometimes we need to change our location, to take a risk to live the authentic life that we long for and speak of at the conclusion of our time together on Sunday morning. Sometimes, we need to get up off the ground, move out of the crowd that judges us and thinks it knows everything that there is to know about us. Sometimes we need to climb a tree to shake off the life that doesn’t serve us anymore… to look down or out and see from a new perspective. And the quest for an authentic life is followed by the practice to never look down on the struggle for life. Don’t judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes.
So what inner work is calling to you this morning? What limb would you go out on to live a fuller and more meaningful life, whether that be in your career, your retirement, your family relationships?
What tree would you climb for a more authentic life? Amen and Amen.