Last summer, a woman called her pastor on a Sunday morning, sobbing. When she finally calmed down enough to speak coherently, she said, “I’m at my parents’ church - they’re doing communion - and they won’t let me take it.” Let us pray:
We come to you, Almighty God, in all of the wrong ways. We demand, we bargain, we insist, we judge - and all the while you give, you pay, you ask and you love. Change our hearts - change our lives - make of us people who serve you gladly and willingly. In the strong, saving name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Put yourself in the crowd in Jericho that day. The teacher Jesus is coming through town, and you’re lined up to see what the talk is all about. You’re standing at the edge of the path, waiting to see Jesus, when you see him. You know who I’m talking about: Zacchaeus. Richest guy in town. Lives in a big house. He’s made himself rich off your taxes. But here’s the thing: he’s short. I mean, you’re average height, and Zacchaeus barely comes up to your shoulder. There he is, scurrying around behind the crowd, trying to get to where he can see Jesus. But everywhere he goes, people won’t let him in. Oh, they won’t shove, and they won’t look at him, but they know he’s there, and they won’t let him in. Shoulders tighten up wherever he goes. And before you know it, you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the people on either side of you as Zacchaeus continues hurrying around, trying to get to where he can see Jesus.
Do you think it’s possible it happened just like that? Sure, there are crowds you simply can’t fight through, but haven’t you seen something exactly like that? Someone gets marked as “not worthy,” and from that point on they can’t get through the crowd, no matter how hard they try.
Today is Reformation Day. Today we celebrate the glorious revolution started by Martin Luther when he hammered 95 Theses into the church door in defiance of the Pope. Except that’s not the way it happened at all. What Luther did was the modern day equivalent of posting an advertisement for a study group on a campus bulletin board. There was no revolution intended - there was just a question to be asked. What Luther wanted to know was this: if Jesus entrusted the church with forgiving sins, then why does the church insist on getting a penny for it first? Isn’t there a better way to do this? Isn’t the whole point getting to see Jesus?
The Reformation rose from those questions, from people who insisted that the church was actually getting in the way. Zacchaeus solved his dilemma by climbing a tree: Luther tried to solve his dilemma by asking questions about the church. What if the crowd had simply let Zacchaeus through? What if the church had simply sat down to think about Luther’s questions? Isn’t the whole idea to see Jesus? Is the crowd getting in the way? Is the church getting in the way? Wasn’t the Reformation, in some ways, the answer to the question, “when do we get to see Jesus?”
Yes, it was. Oh, by the end it became a political conflict filled with all the maneuvers and negotiating and bloodshed and treaties you can expect from a revolution, but in the beginning it was simply a group of monks in a forgotten German college town asking “when do the people get to see Jesus?” And just as Zacchaeus had to take some unorthodox measures to get to see Jesus, the reformers found themselves doing and saying things they never could have imagined they’d say, all in the interest of helping people see Jesus. It’s surprising what happens when seeing Jesus becomes the primary focus of your life (pun definitely intended).
As it turns out, Zacchaeus was a bit of a surprise himself. “Roman officials contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the prescribed indirect taxes, tolls, tariffs and customs fees in a given area. These entrepreneurs, the ‘chief tax collectors,’ were required to pay the contract in advance. They would then employ others to collect the taxes with the hope that the amount collected would yield a profit.”
In other words, as a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus staked a claim that may or may not have given him any benefit in the end. It’s very much like farmers putting all their seed into the ground in April, not knowing if anything will grow - only, in Zacchaeus’ time, there was no such thing as insurance if things didn’t go well.
It’s an incredible risk to take. Zacchaeus paid in advance for taxes he would collect from others. But that’s not all that was surprising about Zacchaeus. When Jesus got to his house, and everyone started complaining about Jesus eating with a sinner like Zacchaeus, things got really interesting. Zacchaeus said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” Now, let’s go back to what your Bible says Zacchaeus said. Read the text on the screen - what does it say? (I WILL give - I WILL pay back) This is the only text in the Bible where a present tense verb in Greek is translated as a future tense verb in English. Why would they do that? What’s the problem? The problem is this: repentance has to precede salvation. Before you can be saved, you have to repent - and if these words are translated properly into English, Zacchaeus isn’t repenting: he’s defending himself. Even today, it seems, the crowd is still trying to keep Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus before they’re good and ready to let it happen.
It seems that God doesn’t have a lot of patience with those of us who keep standing in the way. God gets especially frustrated when the ones standing in the way are the ones who say they are God’s church. Let’s look at the Isaiah text from this morning again, shall we? “my soul hates your appointed festivals; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them...I have had enough of burnt offerings...I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” In other words, even worship gets old for God when the church doesn’t care about making connections between God and the world. If we the church continue to stand in the way of people who want to see Jesus, God is going to grow tired of us as well.
But God’s weariness doesn’t come on its own. Remember how I said Zacchaeus paid in advance for the taxes he would then collect? There’s the ring of something familiar in that idea, isn’t there? How about, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Jesus died for us.” (Romans 5.8) Paid in advance. No guarantee of a return from sinners, is there? In fact, God staking his claim on us seems a fool’s wager from the start, doesn’t it? Yet here we are, all these many years later, with God still paying in advance out of love for sinners. You see, God isn’t waiting for you to get things right, either. God didn’t wait for you to fight your way through the crowd before you got to see Jesus. While the church may sometimes forget itself and stand in the way of people who want to see, God doesn’t make the same mistake. In Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, in the calling and gathering of the saints, the Spirit of God is alive and well in this world, sometimes working its way into people in spite of the church’s best efforts, saving and redeeming us lost and broken sinners long before we could ever do it for ourselves.
There’s a church I know who started to live this out once. They revamped their confirmation program and flipped it upside down. Instead of teaching for one, two or three years, then confirming their youth, they began with confirmation, then taught. They started with the promise, then began teaching their young people what the promise truly meant. I think it was a wonderful, beautiful living out of the way God works in the world - and would you be at all surprised to hear that the church discontinued the program after a few years? People were complaining that students weren’t finishing the program, weren't joining the church, weren't 'doing their part.' The idea that the church might have something to give these young people never occurred to more than a few of the core leaders of the program - the rest were concerned about what the church could take from these young people. It seems that while God prefers to work loose and free from restrictions and conditions, we can’t do the same in the church - at least, not without a ton of help from God, and even then, the lack of boundaries can get so frightening we’d rather go back to our old, confining, restrictive ways.
I’m coming to believe more and more that we’ve misinterpreted the story of the Reformation. Luther and his contemporaries weren’t interested in giving a big middle finger to the mean church bueraucrats in Rome: all they wanted to do was to help people see Jesus. That’s the spirit of the Reformation: we do our best to help people see Jesus. That spirit continues today wherever the gospel is proclaimed, heard and believed - even in the most unlikely of places. Like an airport chapel, for instance.
Remember the girl who called her pastor, sobbing, because she couldn’t receive communion at her old church? Well, that pastor asked that girl if she could pray for her. Then she asked if she could talk to a few other people at their church so they could pray for her. Then someone said, “we should meet her at the airport when she gets home.” Then someone said, “we should bring communion to her when she gets home.” So three days after that tearful conversation, a girl named Rachel got off a plane in Denver to find members of her church waiting for her. They went upstairs into the interfaith chapel, eight of them, and took communion. Together. Rachel got to see Jesus, to taste Jesus, and so did the other seven folks who communed with her. It was, by the pastor’s account, a holy moment, and I believe her. Whenever and however it happens, it is always a holy moment when we get to see Jesus. Amen.