Proper 26C-22 – Reformation Sunday
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Zaccheus was a wee, little man, and a wee, little man was he.” It’s hard for me to read this gospel without that bible song running through my head. “He climbed up in a sycamore tree, For the Lord he wanted to see.” This wee little story, found only in the gospel of Luke, holds obvious fascination for children. Yet, it is no mere plaything. We are living in the age of Zacchaeus. For all our privilege, education, and wealth the Church finds itself looking again to Jesus hoping to learn what we’re missing. I wonder, what’s more surprising, that rich little Zacchaeus was curious enough to climb a tree to see Jesus; or what happened after he climbed down? He was open enough to follow with him. Can we, like Zacchaeus, climb down from our own privilege and our modern life-style, to follow Jesus?
This Reformation Sunday would be impossible without Luther’s famous hymn A Mighty Fortress (ELW #503-505). There are no less than three versions in our hymnal! Luther’s hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 46, which sings of a river “whose streams make glad the city of God” (46:4). Rivers bring life-giving waters, and rivers flood and reshape the terrain despite our best efforts to control them. The Holy Spirit is such a river. Reformation is the Spirit’s never-ending work. The Spirit upended the life of little Zacchaeus, knocked blind Saul from his horse on the road to Damascus, blew the doors off the Church in 1517, and courses through our lives today.
Our Lutheran ancestors were protesters before they were reformers—they accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful. They taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world. (Diana Butler-Bass)
“[Luther] removed the barrier which put priests nearer to God. He encouraged priests to marry. Ordained ministry suddenly became about preaching and teaching rather than acting as civil judge, tax collector, and/or manager of large estates. One surprising consequence of the Reformation was that, by the 1550’s, the number of clergy persons in Protestant cities dropped by as much as two-thirds (Stephen Ozment). Priesthood became less profitable. Now, the faithful could serve God by being a shoemaker or blacksmith as well as by being a priest. Empty monasteries became hospitals, hospices, and schools.
Before Luther, the notion that every individual should read and interpret the bible for himself or—worse—herself, instead of deferring to learned authorities, would have seemed outrageous and dangerous in premodern societies everywhere else in the world. Luther’s Sola Scriptura, the belief that every individual should read and weigh biblical teaching for themselves was astonishing on many levels. It led to an explosion of literacy among both men and women, that literally radiated out from Wittenberg, spread throughout Europe, and later across the globe. Sola scriptura is credited with energizing innovation, with laying the legal groundwork for representational democracy, modern economic prosperity, and the flourishing of the science. (Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World.)
That’s the good news. The Protestant Reformation brought profound and positive social change. Yay God. Yet we now see it also cast a very long shadow. European wars of religion stretched on for 125 years. The natural world suffered as it was emptied of value except for what could be extracted from it. The diverse peoples of the world became subjects to be ruled, converted, killed, or enslaved—and the Church enthusiastically lent its stamp of approval to the whole project of global domination. No. The Spirit is not yet done with us. Could it be time, finally, to climb down from our lofty self and join the all-people’s parade?
I challenge anyone to be a better, more industrious, or more creative servant of the gospel than Emmy Evald. Emmy, our hero, the ultimate matriarch of Immanuel, was college roommate and life-long friend of Jane Adams. She was the ally and friend of Susan B. Anthony. Yet, like all of us, Emmy could only see so far. Emmy was a suffragette but not an abolitionist. She built schools, hospitals, and homes for poor women throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, China, India, Africa, and the Holy Land to bring good news to lost souls she believed were living in darkness and lost to God without Christianity. Yes. We, like Emmy, once were blind, but now we see, don’t we? How service to the gospel became tragically mixed with the poison and arrogance of white supremacy? Jesus bids us come down. He wants to make a home with us.
Like rich little Zacchaeus we stand high up in our lofty perch of accumulated Western wealth wrung from the sweat of other people’s labor, living on stolen land waiting, watching, and hoping for Jesus to show us again what our lives are missing. Jesus sees us. Jesus bids us to learn from our mistakes. As we stand near the end of 2022 and look over into 2023, we know the terrain ahead has been flooded is being reshaped and will be changed. We are living amid a new reformation. Yay God?
The story of rich little Zacchaeus points the way to forgiveness and inclusion. These are Jesus’ most urgent and often repeated lessons. Forgiveness and inclusion are the practical names of love. Without them love is no more than a sentimental valentine. Forgiveness and inclusion are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. (Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, 150-151).
Notice: Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to confess his faith or pass a spiritual litmus test. Jesus does not condemn, lecture, or ignore him but simply challenges him to true conversion. Zacchaeus response is equally surprising. He says yes with his whole being, transforming his life without hesitation. Grace is that simple. It’s that amazing. There is nothing to do but climb down from our trees and join the parade.
Zacchaeus was a sinner by anyone’s standards, supporting the occupying Roman government through tax collection, cheating his own people in the process, and becoming a very rich man. Jesus’ words scandalize the crowd and stun Zacchaeus: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). Without hesitation, Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ invitation with equal generosity. He opens his house, heart, and life by proclaiming that “half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,” and from those he has cheated, he will “repay it four times over.” In other words, Zacchaeus is even willing to pay reparations.
The Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers called the ongoing work of the Spirit “correcting the correction.” The work of genuine reformation, whether of the institutional church, or that of our individual lives, is never finished. We stand here in need of renewal and restoration of mind and spirit. We come here to stand in the light of grace and to shine once again with some small portion of the image and likeness of God. This is our story. This is our song. God who formed and reforms us calls us out to join the Jesus parade. Amen.