Romans 3:19-28

Luke 19:1-10

Most of us know Zacchaeus’ story. Many of us learned the song in Sunday School: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man / and a wee little man was he…” That’s not quite a complete description. He was a “wee little,” rich and powerful man. He was the manager of the tax collector we talked about last week, and he was very wealthy. Calling him “little” is not just talking about his height. It’s just like we use it, a word for the quality of his person. Zacchaeus was not a respectable person, however much power he had. He apparently knew this. He had the status to command the crowd to part, but instead, he climbed a tree like a little boy. He wanted to see Jesus, but he couldn’t get there, on account of the people who were already with Jesus. So he had to go around.

That sounds sadly familiar. I’m thinking, especially today on Reformation Sunday: when does the church obscure the view of Jesus? When are we, like in the beginning of Zacchaeus’ story, packed so tightly around the road that there’s no room for outsiders, the others who arrive “late to the parade”? Or when do we block the view of people of Zacchaeus’ “moral stature,” who know that churches are full of people who will only look sideways at you? In Luther’s time, almost 500 years ago, the church had buried the Good News under ritual and financial requirements for access to grace. However, just like the Roman Catholic church has grown and changed, Protestant churches have learned to obscure the Gospel in as many ways.

There are different ways particular churches can obscure Jesus. There are different ways that we can and do. You may know one that convicts you today, but here’s another. This is a story that Shane Claiborne told on Speaking of Faith. (The denomination “Roman Catholic” in the story is irrelevant – this could have been any church.)

Ms. Tippett: … You know, what’s intriguing in your story is you were very interested in these spiritual questions. You wanted to know more about Christianity and apply your mind to it. And it seems to me that that really began to happen in North Philadelphia for you — not so much in the classroom or in church …but among homeless people.

Mr. Claiborne: Yeah. Yeah. Well, my first encounter with Kensington in North Philly was when there was a group of poor and homeless families with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which was just a group of mostly homeless women and children that had gotten together. And they did something really courageous. In the midst of the ruins of North Philadelphia where there’s, you know, over 20,000 abandoned houses and 700 abandoned factories, they found an abandoned Catholic church building, and they moved into it.

And we read about that in college. And the newspaper article that we read said that these families had resurrected the church, you know? And that they had also, ironically, been given an ultimatum eviction notice — that within 48 hours, if they weren’t out, they could face arrest for trespassing on church property. So that really stirred all kinds of deep questions in us.

“And as the Savior passed that way / he looked up in the tree…” Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree and went to his house, and Zacchaeus welcomed him with joy. But the others knew better. Zacchaeus was a notorious sinner, who had (presumably, at least) exploited and defrauded all the rest of town. Of course they didn’t want to exclude anyone, but the dignity of the church was at stake here. Visiting Zacchaeus was just not becoming of Jesus’ character. The medieval Roman church was not being reactionary, it was just defending traditional Christianity from Luther’s upsetting ideas. The authorities in Philadelphia were not anti-homeless, but their building and resources were at stake. It may be easy to read these stories with the perspective of time and it being “not our church,” but what if it were our church at stake?

Mr. Claiborne: So that really stirred all kinds of deep questions in us. And a group of us from the college got involved and, basically, put our lives alongside theirs and said to the city, ‘If you come to evict them, then you got to take us, too.’ And over 100 students … eventually got involved in this. And that made a big difference. Because the media became very involved and now …you know, we were all facing arrest as well. And they made it look like the church was kicking homeless people out. And that’s because the church was kicking homeless people out, you know?

But maybe the church isn’t God. Maybe it was that the Gospel was at stake in Luther’s time. Maybe God really was in Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus stands up and announces a transformed life, giving money to the poor, repaying ill-gotten gains. He’s living righteously after all! Churches on both sides of the Reformation recommitted to true charity, justice, and the Gospel (imperfectly, of course). The church tends to grow traditions and interpretations that would keep people from Jesus, but Jesus refuses to be collared. Five hundred years later, we’re still reforming – still being reformed by the Word, Jesus’ love, working within and around us.

Mr. Claiborne: And so, it just lasted not for 48 hours, but for weeks and weeks and weeks that we were there.

Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, it had a happy ending, didn’t it? They didn’t get evicted. And is it right that those homeless families had, for the most part, found a place to live by the time you all left?

Mr. Claiborne: It was incredible, what happened. Folks saw it on the news. And they bought houses or donated houses. Some Section 8 and low-income housing vouchers were released. And there were hard stories, but there were also beautiful stories. And those families have been our theologians. You know, they’ve been our teachers …and sociologists, and the folks that have really opened our eyes up to the world.

Miracles happen. Lives change. Eyes come open when Jesus works through people in the world. And Shane Claiborne may well be the next Luther. But I don’t want to confine this idea to a particular historical movement. Many reformers predated and succeeded Luther. St Francis preached as clearly as Luther ever did. Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Knox all had reforming to do. The reforming Spirit is always at work. That’s Jesus’ final word today: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The funny thing about “the lost” is, they’re not where you expect them to be. They’re hard to find – that’s what makes them lost. But the Spirit is always looking for them. It’s always looking under the pews, on the park benches, up in the trees. Christianity at its best lives out the Reformed slogan: we are “the church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God.” So we live with our eyes open, seeking to welcome those whom our institution shuts out. We live that way because we know Jesus lives with his eyes open too, always working to make a place for us and all at God’s table.

Amen.

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