When I was growing up, we had something of a family ritual in my house around bedtime. Well, we actually had two rituals. First, my brother Andy and I would do everything we could to avoid going to bed. Asking to watch another 10 minutes of TV, usually. Or taking a really long time in the bath. Or suddenly engaging in some very exciting play with our Star Wars figures. And invariably, my parents would tell us to “stop stalling” and get to bed. Somehow, I suspect that this ritual wasn’t unique to the Cadwells in Minnesota.
But after we gave in and actually got ready for bed, it was prayer time. As I recall we didn’t say prayers absolutely every night, but often enough. Sometimes my parents came into our rooms, and sometimes we went and hopped into their bed, so we could all be together. We didn’t really say prayers for people or things. Instead, we tended to sing songs from Sunday school. My mom was a Sunday school teacher, so she knew all the songs, and I think my dad did, too. We usually sang two or three songs together, and then said the Lord’s prayer and ended with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I know it sounds really cheesy, like we were right out of the von Trapp family in the Sound of Music, but it’s true!
My favorite song was about Zacchaeus, the character in this morning’s gospel. Maybe you know it, too. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree. And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today. For I’m going to your house today’.” Usually, when we sang it both in Sunday school and at home there were hand actions, too.
I can’t say that when we sang this song I knew a whole lot about wee little Zacchaeus or why Jesus went to his house. We just knew that whoever he was, he was really short, he knew how to climb trees, and he also knew about Jesus. Somehow Jesus knew about him, too. Well, this morning’s gospel fills in the blanks. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, he was the chief tax collector, which in the first century was an even more unpopular job than working for the IRS would be today. Because you see, in those days tax collectors went around and collected whatever tax the Roman Empire required, but then they would take some additional extra finds for themselves. And sometimes they took a lot extra funds for themselves. But there was no one to stop them, as they were part of their society’s power structure. They were an integral part of the system that the Roman Empire used to try and keep people down.
That’s why we hear such frequent negative references to tax collectors in the gospels. They were the epitome of the corrupt bad guys. The worst of the worst. And yet it seems that Jesus actually spent a lot of time with them. He forgave them. He even invited them into his closest circle of friends. In fact, the disciple Matthew, after whom I am named, was a tax collector. And so was Zacchaeus, the wee little man. It obviously wasn’t the best move in terms of Jesus’ public relations, especially among the religious people who thought that hanging around with the wrong kind of people would somehow rub off on them, but it’s what Jesus did. Over and over again.
Why did he do that? Why did he associate with such unpopular, even hated people? Why hang out with tax collectors, who cheated other hard-working people out of their money?
Well, first we know that Jesus was almost never too concerned about popularity or what other people thought. He absolutely didn’t care about that. In fact, I think Jesus associated with, hung out with, these people in part because they were so hated. I know that sounds weird. But you know, the tax collectors (as well as the prostitutes and whoever else that was unpopular), they were shunned by their society. Nobody liked them or treated them with any sort of respect, except maybe out of fear. And so they dug their heels in, and since they were treated so badly in the first place, they gouged people in collecting taxes. In a way, the tax collectors like Zacchaeus made others pay for being so mean. Which only made people hate them more.
But Jesus wouldn’t be caught up in that vicious cycle. Jesus broke the cycle by telling Zacchaeus that he will accept him, and even befriend him, just as he is. It didn’t matter to Jesus how rotten a life Zacchaeus’ had led. It didn’t matter to Jesus that Zacchaeus had no other friends. It didn’t matter to Jesus what he had done. Jesus just wanted to be with him, he wanted to spend time with him, to accept him, for no other reason than, well, just because.
Now of course as a result Zacchaeus says that he will change his ways. He promises to give half of what he has to the poor and he promises to repay four-fold anything he has taken dishonestly. But that doesn’t come first. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, “if you fix your life I’ll be your friend” or “if you shape up, I’ll love you.” No. With Jesus, the friendship, the love, and the acceptance all come first. Just because. Just because that’s what Jesus does.
Today, October 31, is of course Halloween. But it is also the 493rd anniversary of the day when a German monk and priest, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses (basically complaints or arguments) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, lighting the fire that became the Protestant Reformation. He did it out of frustration with the prevailing mood in the church of his day, which seemed to require that people earn (or even buy) their salvation. In those days, before you could be forgiven of your sins, you had to do all kinds of special things. First, you had to confess your sins to a priest. Then, you had to maybe say Hail Marys or undertake other spiritual exercises. People were even encouraged to buy a piece of paper from a priest that would assure that you or your relatives would be freed from purgatory. The worst offender in that regard was a priest named Johannes Tetzel, who famously said: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Hearing this, Luther was appalled, even as he struggled personally with feeling that he had not done enough to merit God’s forgiveness and love.
So, he decided to engage in a scholarly debate with the church hierarchy—that’s what he 95 arguments were for—to begin a debate with the church leaders. Luther was actually a very conservative man. He didn’t want to start his own church. He really just wanted to fix the abuses he saw. But the pope and the bishops weren’t too keen on an upstart monk from a backwater German town telling them how to run their church (plus they needed the money from the sale of the indulgences to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) so eventually, the only option for them was to excommunicate Luther when he refused to back down. Only, what happened was that others heard about him. They read what he wrote. And many, many people thought Luther was right—even some kings and princes thought he was right. So, they left the Catholic Church (which to that point really was the only church) and they started their own.
At the time, they didn’t call it Lutheran (or even Protestant). It was called Evangelical—meaning simply gospel-based. And like wild-fire, it spread throughout Germany and then into the Netherlands and Switzerland and Scandinavia and, eventually, to England, where it took on a unique character, blending the important insights of the Reformation teaching, with a more Catholic sensibility in terms of worship and church life. We, in the Episcopal Church, are the inheritors of that unique English way of being church.
But wherever it went—whether England or Germany or Scandinavia--it was always based on the idea that you can’t earn your salvation. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you. It doesn’t matter how good, or bad, your life is, God loves you anyway. That’s what we mean by “grace.” It’s unearned, unmerited love and acceptance. The phrase you often hear with regard to the Reformation is “justification by grace through faith.” You are “justified”—meaning, God loves you as if you haven’t sinned, even though you know you have, even though God knows you have. And all you have to do is accept it, have faith that he does so. Of course from a legal perspective it’s totally wrong. It’s unfair and unjust. But, it’s what God does. Just because.
What Luther discovered in reading the Bible—especially in the letters of St. Paul—was that God is not really like a judge who keeps track of each and every wrong. That’s what many of the medieval Christians believed, and to a certain degree it’s what the church wanted them to believe. Rather, Luther discovered that God is really like a parent, a Father, who loves us in spite of what we do, just as our own parents do. Our job, like Zacchaeus’ in today’s gospel passage, is welcome God into hearts, just as he welcomes Jesus into his home. That’s the faith part of justification by faith. And when we do, we are set freed from the chains of our sin. We realize that we are loved, we accepted just as we are with all of our faults, and in response, we are able to break the cycle of pain and hurt that we inflict on others.
When you boil it all down, that’s what the Reformation was all about—understanding and appreciating God’s love, shown in Jesus. Accepting God’s love. And then, being transformed by it. So that we are free to love in return. That’s what today’s gospel passage is all about, too. And, when you think about it, it’s what the whole of our Christian faith is all about. Being loved, accepting that love, and then loving in return. It’s pretty simple and it’s pretty wonderful.
I thought I would close this morning with a prayer by an Anglican theologian and bishop named Brooke Foss Westcott. He actually lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, not the Reformation era. But I thought the prayer was a good one in summing up what this morning’s gospel and the Reformation ideals were all about. So, let us pray.
O Lord our God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open our eyes that we may behold your fatherly presence always with us. Draw our hearts to you with the power of your love. Teach us to be anxious about nothing, and when we have done what you have given us to do, help us, O God our Saviour, to leave the issue to your wisdom. Take from us all doubt and mistrust. Lift our hearts to you in heaven, and make us to know that all things are possible for us through your Son our Redeemer. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell