the gospel according to Luke 19:1-10
When I was 18, I had plans for college as many young people do. I was registered for classes at University of Southern Mississippi an hour from home. I had a dorm room assigned and, to my great delight, my roommate was to be one of my very best friends in the world. I had a book list and new sheets. I had a schedule for first week events and a date planned with a friend from a synod wide youth event for that first week of orientation…we were planning Chinese for dinner and an evening of alternative rock in a local bar…this was the 1990’s after all, we were trying our best to bring the feel of the Seattle music scene to small town Mississippi. I was excited about this new beginning.
But something was off. There was a young man in my life, a member of our congregation and its youth group, who was beginning to show signs of mental illness. We had been very good friends through our high school years, but now he was behaving erratically. He would show up in unexpected places or call and indicate he knew things he shouldn’t have been able to know like what I was wearing at that moment or who was coming and going from my house. Little things began to appear in places they shouldn't or disappear from places they should be. Or he’d call demanding to know my work schedule and what I was doing after and with whom. His self-entanglement in my personal space was feeling more and more unsafe. And then dropped out of his university and enrolled at USM. He asked what classes I was taking, in which dorm I would be living. Worst was how he began to really endear himself to my friends. I began to feel as though my friends were no longer mine. That I had no safe place.
So, thanks to their rolling admissions policy, the week before classes began, I enrolled at Texas Lutheran College. I cancelled my courses and dates and roommate and plans in Mississippi and moved 10 hours away.
I knew no one. New city, new people, new culture. Now the folks at the college in Texas were really nice people. Lots of folks welcomed me. The professors were kind. Class sizes were small. There was a fair amount of stuff to do even in the tiny town of Seguin thanks to the diligence of the college staff and faculty. We even had a pastor there…and he was pretty rad.
But I had no friends. I had no transportation. I had no understanding of why mariachi music should be played in the dining hall and parking lots at seemingly random times or country music blaring from dorm rooms. I felt caught between two places: the place I had come from and this strange place I had landed. I felt “out there.” I felt like I was caught on a hanging bridge. Swinging between two worlds. I should belong in both places but really I belonged in neither place.
I felt alone even though I was surrounded by people. I felt that no one understood me. That no one even saw me. I felt lost.
And then, one afternoon, I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I met Diana. And this is the part that I do remember: she looked me in the eye and invited me to dinner in the mariachi band inhabited dining hall. And for the last 22 years, Diana has called me out of my hiding places and lost places and loneliness and into relationship not only with her but through her into relationship with the rest of the world. And I thank God for her daily.
Luke tells us a story today about a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was also caught between two worlds.
He was a tax collector. We know that tax collectors were considered sinners in the time of Jesus because they worked for the empire collecting money from the poor in order to fund the lavish lifestyle of the emperor and his cronies. In that peasant culture, if you didn’t make a living by cultivating crops or caring for livestock, you were considered a traitor to your people and a thief.
Luke calls Zacchaeus a “chief tax collector and rich”. This means that he is in middle management, if you will. He oversees other tax collectors and has the opportunity to charge his people more that the empire demanded and to keep it for himself, and he could do this kind of over-taxing through every single tax collector he supervised. So Zacchaeus is not just a traitor and a thief. He’s the worst kind. He’s the ultimate traitor and thief. And he lives luxuriously we assume because Luke tells us he’s rich.
So, Zacchaeus works for the Romans, but he is not a Roman. He is not welcomed at their tables or invited to their homes. He does a job for them.
Zacchaeus is a Jew. But he is not welcomed at the tables of his people. He is not invited into their homes. He is a traitor.
Zacchaeus is caught between worlds. Belonging in some ways to both but belonging in fullness to neither. He is alone even in the vast crowd. He is lost.
Now Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus. He knows that Jesus is a teacher, popular with the crowds, and that he is traveling through. Zacchaeus goes out to see Jesus.
The crowd is thick. The people there are desperate to see their teacher. And Zacchaeus pushes through the crowd to see, too, but the people won’t let him in. In his desperation to SEE what the fuss is all about, he climbs a sycamore tree and lodges himself in firmly among the branches.
But here’s the really cool part: Jesus walks along, looks up, sees Zacchaeus and calls to him by name. Jesus sees through the crush of people into the heart of Zacchaeus and says, “come on down. I need to stay at your house.”
Now, of course, the people grumble. By now in the Gospel according to Luke, we’ve come to expect that we should grumble, too. This guy is a traitor to his people, and he’s RICH… In the upside down kingdom of God, the rich are supposed to have a very hard time. Jesus has been preaching this sort of economic justice for chapters now. So perhaps his followers feel justified in their anger, in their exclusion of Zacchaeus. Maybe they think that Jesus has “lost it” a little bit. And they complain, “why has he gone to be the guest of a sinner?”
And perhaps because Zacchaeus recognizes that due to Jesus’ interest in him he has a platform on which to speak, or maybe because he wants Jesus to approve or maybe he just wants his name cleared or for Jesus to understand the truth (lots of possibilities here and the text isn’t all that clear), Zacchaeus says, “hey. I just want you to know 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.” The Greek doesn’t say “will give” but simply “give”. And this is important because this means that Zacchaeus is already functioning in this unethical, unjust system in a just way. He is doing his part to bring about the kingdom…living out kingdom values in the midst of the empire. He’s pretty radical! And very, very brave.
But the people of his village did not recognize it. They were so angry at the system and those who participated in it that they could not see that this chief tax collector acted out of kingdom values. They blamed him unjustly for the unjust system he was a part of. As my friend Terry Kyllo says, He wasn't just short, he was short of friends.
But Jesus sees him. All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sees those whom society has abused, marginalized, and cast out. Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon them, but he seeks them out. He surrounds himself with them. He holds them up before others and says, “Look. Here is my beloved. Here is my sibling. Here is the one, here are the ones, whom I love.”
All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shows us that God is exactly not who we were expecting. And every time we get confident enough to declare just who God says is “in” or is “out”, Jesus reforms our way of thinking about God.
That’s a large part of our celebration today. Not so much that we are rejoicing in a split from the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, when Luther set out to make a difference in that unjust system 499 years ago, he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, he simply wanted the church he loved to be better than it was. We commemorate the split from our siblings in this vast body of Christ. But we celebrate that Luther changed the way we see God.
Luther recognized that he had been worshipping the wrong God…he had been taught about a God who punishes and despises us on account of our imperfections. A God who sent his only son to be beaten up, to take the punishments that we deserve because of our wicked humanity. Instead, through the person of Jesus, Luther began to see a God who delights in our humanity. Who calls us “good” even when we aren’t particularly good. A God who know us, who seeks us, who offers salvation, which means healing, through relationship with Godself…through love.
And so we are propelled through that love to build relationship with one another.
Right now, in North and South Dakota, the people of Standing Rock Tribe are also looking for a bit of reformation. They are protecting their ancestors’ graves, our water supply, and their sacred sites from Big Oil. And they are doing it through prayer and passive resistance. But they are being met by police with rubber bullets, noise cannons, dogs, and sticks. They are threatened with assault rifles and grenade launchers. They are being arrested, numbers written on their skin, and they are locked in dog kennels. They are being strip searched and separated from their loved ones. Forced to sleep on concrete floors. Sometimes the women and the children are given tarps for cover. Sometimes they are not. They are rounded up from their places of worship and dragged through the dirt, but yet they remain committed to the protective work that they are doing. They show up again and again every morning.
Because this movement isn’t only about water or oil. It is also about the ways in which Indigenous peoples in this country have been marginalized and abused since the time of Luther’s Reformation. It is a people calling for a nation to honor its promises and all of its inhabitants. It is a tribe, supported by 500 other tribes, begging, no demanding that they been seen, known, and loved not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.
Will we see them? Will you see them? See the Water Protectors at Standing Rock as beloved and valuable children of our same Creator?
We are being called at this moment in time to reform the way this country treats its members. Black and brown people are every bit as beloved and cherished by God as white ones are…if we read the Gospel with honest eyes and we recognize that the oppressed, the cast out, the abused, are beloved by God and are the ones whom God pulls especially close (the last shall be first and the first shall be last, remember?), we have to be willing to admit that at this point in history God is most assuredly screaming into this nation's seemingly deaf ears that Native Lives Matter and that Black Lives Matter. And if we are indeed to be one nation under God, we must reform ourselves to God’s way doing things. Actual justice for all.
If we are called, and I believe we are called, through this reformed church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, we have to see our siblings, hear their cries for justice, and put our own bodies in motion for the in-breaking of the kingdom in the unjust system of these United States.
Diana saw me and brought me from that place of outsider into community and into relationship which continues some 22 years later. Jesus saw Zacchaeus sought him out and brought him salvation, which is healing, and, we can assume, back into community. We, the body of Christ, must see our siblings at Standing Rock and demand that they be welcomed into community and into places of respect not in spite of who they are but because of who they are…beloved by God.
Hear the Good News: through the person of Jesus, you are sought out, you are freed, you are forgiven, you are beloved. And in response to that Good News, let's put our bodies in motion for the reformation of this world. Through your actions, others just might see God.