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Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. This is the love of the cross.
Even though the Cubbies are on the brink, these are exciting days to be in Chicago and exciting days to be a baseball fan. The thrill of being here for something so overdue and therefore so historic has made for a truly memorable first fall in Chicago for me—and even for Meredith and Laura, who have never been accused of liking baseball.
The image that most clearly represents all this excitement for me is a sign that a fan was photographed holding above the third base dugout the night the Cubs beat the Dodgers to clinch the National League pennant. It was a simply handwritten sign that said, “This is happening.” So much is captured by that simple sentence. This. Is. Happening.
The sentence almost feels fit for a liturgy, don’t you think. Like, instead of “This is the Word of the Lord,” “This is happening.” Or instead of “This is the table of the risen Christ,” simply “This is happening.” Instead of “This is the day the Lord has made,” “This is happening.”
Maybe not that last one.
When I say, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” you say, “And we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Let’s try that: “This is the day that the Lord has made.” “And we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
You may recognize that as a churchy greeting. You may even know that it’s taken from Psalm 118:24. You might know the song based on it. It’s a call and response number too. Repeat after me, “This is the day / This is the day /That the Lord has made / That the Lord has made. /I will rejoice / I will rejoice / and be glad in it / and be glad in it.
And so on.
Greeting one another this way is a habit that grounds the people of faith in an awareness of this day as the theater for God’s work of creation and redemption. In days of plenty and in days of want, days of certainty and days of doubt, days of comfort and days of terror, God’s people stubbornly insist that this is the day that the Lord has made and that, as a result, we will rejoice and be glad in it.
Here’s some good news: this is the day. Not some future hoped-for day. Not some day long since passed and clouded by nostalgia. No, this day. This is the day.
“Today,” Jesus says to a malcontented crowd at the very end of this story we just heard. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
This is the day . . .
“Today,” he says to Zacchaeus hiding in plain sight. “I must stay at your house today.”
This is the day . . .
This is happening—today. Discipleship—following Jesus in our hearts and minds and with our decisions—is immanently practical. Christian faith is more than a strategic plan for how to be a better person and how to make a better world. It is a decision made again and again over a long march of todays to live a fully human life in as close an imitation of Jesus as we can muster. Today. This is the day the Lord has made. This is the day of salvation. This is the day to follow Jesus.
I don’t know if Zacchaeus was quite bargaining for this today. Today Zacchaeus just wanted to check Jesus out.
You get that, right? The interest in checking God out? Checking Jesus out? Checking church out? You want to see what it’s all about. You’re not looking to join, necessarily, just kind of sit near the back and observe. You’re here to check it out.
And you probably have very good reasons for just checking it out. Maybe church was part of your life at one point and it didn’t go so well. Maybe you got hurt or disappointed. Maybe you disappointed yourself. Or maybe you’ve never been and have heard only that church people are narrow-minded and judgmental, but you’re drawn by curiosity. Maybe something is missing and you can just feel it and maybe this could be the place you find it. Maybe you’re wrestling with demons and you figure a little bit of God could only help.
We all come as seekers, at some point and in some way, just trying to check God out.
So does Zacchaeus. He’s a chief tax collector, and you know that means he’s got a history. We hear a lot about tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel; they’re bad news. Tax collectors work for the Roman government, the empire that is occupying Palestine and oppressing its Jewish inhabitants. Tax collectors are traitors to their people and classed by the masses alongside murderers and thieves. They extort money from a vulnerable population and enrich themselves in the process. Tax collector are bad dudes. And Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector—the only one of those we ever encounter in the Gospels. He’s the bad dudes’ boss.
And he wants to check Jesus out.
Maybe Zacchaeus finds it hard to sleep at night. Maybe the angry stares in the streets are starting to get to him. Maybe he’s just yearning for something more than the wealth he has amassed for himself. Something sends Zacchaeus into that sycamore tree to try and get a look at Jesus.
That’s all. Just see Jesus. He isn’t coming like so many others—scribes and Pharisees—to question Jesus. He isn’t coming beating his chest and begging for mercy, like the tax collector in a parable Jesus tells in the preceding chapter of Luke’s Gospel. No, Zacchaeus is coming as a spectator up a tree, trying hard, but only just to see.
Jesus sees too, though, you know?
Jesus sees Zacchaeus. He sees him, and he knows him. Knows his name, knows his profession, knows where he lives, knows he’s lurking up in the branches of that sycamore. So Jesus walks right to the spot and calls out the little extortionist.
I’m just imagining what must be going through Zacchaeus’s mind as Jesus is getting closer and closer to his tree. In my mind it’s something like, “Oh, hey, this is a pretty good seat. Finally I’m not looking at the business end of anybody’s tunic. Yeah, a guy can breathe up here. Oh! Here he comes, this rabbi I’ve been hearing so much about, the one people say is a friend of tax collectors and sinners. We’ll see about that. Yep, that’s him alright. Look at this crowd! Oh, yeah, he’s coming right this way. He’s going to pass right by me. I’ll get a good look at him.
“Huh. He keeps looking up here. He’s getting closer, carried along by the crowd almost, walking, walking, wa— Huh? He looked again. Does he see me? Oh man. Has he heard about me? The people in this crowd could surely tell him stories. He’s still looking. Now he’s stopping. Now he’s calling out my name!”
Here it comes, right? The denunciation of the prophet: “You crook! You thief! You call yourself an Israelite, a child of God, a child of Abraham as you collaborate with the enemy, as you pick the pockets of the poor! Repent you snake!”
The crowd’s itching for that—you know they are—like junior high kids circling two toughs and seething for a fight.
For sure Jesus sees Zacchaeus and is coming straight for him. Jesus comes to call the sinner out, but the call is not what the crowd is expecting. It’s not what we’re expecting. It’s sure not what Zacchaeus
Instead of “How dare you!” the call of Jesus is “Hurry down here.” Instead of “Get out of my sight,” Jesus’ approach is “You gotta take me to your house.”
It’s like Jesus says: he comes seeking and saving the lost.
Today is Reformation Sunday, a day during the church year when we celebrate our heritage as a church of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. I don’t know how much you know about all of this or how much you care. I came to all of this Reformation awareness only as an adult, and the thing about it that grabbed me more than anything else—more than the hymns and the fancy robes and stoles—was this understanding of the grace of God, the very grace of God that we see in this interaction between Zacchaeus and Jesus.
That God sees us before we even begin to look for God and that, because of Jesus, God likes what God sees is the revolutionary insight of the Reformation. Protestant Christians don’t do their best to be good people in the hope that, in the end, God will approve of their efforts. No, because of Jesus, we do our best to be people like Jesus because God already approves of us—and then some. God desires us. God seeks us. God saves us—saints, sinners, lost, and found.
What goodness we can muster in life is merely a response to God’s gracious initiative to seek us out, which God does faithfully and relentlessly, just like Jesus sought out Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.
And look what happens. Look what the grace of God accomplishes. Look at Zacchaeus, filled with joy and hurrying down from his perch to welcome Jesus into his very own home. Look at him coming with joy to meet his Lord. He’s all in. He’s not a spectator now. He’s a disciple.
Now look at this: he’s pledging half of his wealth to the poor. And look at this: he’s pledging to pay back anybody he’s defrauded four times over. Would you look at that?
Compare Zacchaeus to another rich person who met Jesus, a young ruler who asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all his possession and give the money to the poor and then come and follow Jesus. He couldn’t do it. His wealth had him trapped, and he simply could not see a future without it.
Not Zacchaeus, though. He’s out front again here, scribbling out a pledge card before the stewardship campaign’s even started. Half my stuff to the poor: done. Restitution for wrongs twice as extensive as any legal requirement: done. Salvation has come to this house indeed.
John Calvin, one of the entrepreneurs of the Reformation, goes so far as to say that “Zacchaeus is changed from a wolf into a sheep, even into a shepherd.” This is the kicker about Zacchaeus’s newfound faith and commitment—his salvation: it’s not just for him. Salvation benefits the poor and the disenfranchised. The salvation of this little crook is going to end up saving a lot of people.
This is the vision of salvation that inspires women and men of the church to pledge and to give. The grace we have received—the promises we inherit in our baptism and that we gobble up in the meal we share around the Lord’s Table—these are not just for us. They are for all of God’s children, especially the least and the lost.
And our faith comes alive and bears fruit as we walk the path of Zacchaeus, who publicly committed to a costly life of justice and restitution, who joyfully and lovingly pledged himself to the poor and the wronged, that the hungry might be filled, that captives might be released, the blind made to see, that the poor might finally get some good news.
Who is benefiting from our salvation? When we come with joy to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved, and freed, who besides us is better off as a result?
When we stand and declare together that we believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who will the good news of God’s love reach as a result?
When we gather around this table, breaking one bread and sharing one cup as one body in communion with Jesus and with one another, who will be less hungry as a result?
Jesus comes to seek and save the lost. And he finds us. He finds us in our trees and he calls us, so that we may joyfully come and follow him, for the sake of all God’s children everywhere.
Let’s follow then, even today. Amen.