St. Philip Lutheran Church
30 October 2022 + Lect. 31c (Reformation)
Rev. Josh Evans
You never quite know what to expect when you get called into the principal’s office or asked by your teacher to stay behind after class, but it’s not usually good news.
When I was in seminary, I got “invited” to my preaching professor’s office. I had just preached my third and final sermon to my preaching lab cohort – a group of about half a dozen classmates and our professor. In this round, we were each assigned a different feast day to preach, and mine was Reformation Day. In that sermon, I quipped: What could a second-year Lutheran seminarian have to possibly preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?
Following what I thought turned out to be a pretty decent sermon came the invitation. With the best and most helpful of intentions, my preaching professor wanted to make sure I understood the theological significance of this day in the history of the church, and she was concerned that I was making light of it.
I truly don’t remember much else about the conversation that followed – but I’ll add that I did indeed pass my preaching class that semester. More importantly, I would also suggest that to question some of the practices surrounding this day is indeed to take the significance and the spirit of the Reformation incredibly seriously. This is, after all, a commemoration built around questioning and pushing back against the status quo.
Yet, somehow, modern Lutheranism has a tendency to turn this into a day where we come to church, belt out “A Mighty Fortress” at the top of our lungs, and leave with an inflated Lutheran ego.
It’s all about perspective – and I’m grateful that in recent years, our perspective has shifted to emphasize more about what unites us as Christians. Ecumenical services between Roman Catholics and Lutherans have become increasingly common – most notably in October 2016 when Pope Francis and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation came together at Lund Cathedral in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
It is good to celebrate our distinctive theological heritage this day, and more than that: It is also a day that calls us to continually reform and be reformed – to change our perspective – in order to open ourselves up to a more profound experience of grace.
It’s all about perspective.
Quite literally so for Zacchaeus, the “wee little man,” as the Sunday School song tells us. As someone used to seeing only the backsides of people in a crowd, Zacchaeus knew he had to do something if he wanted a shot at seeing Jesus – and so he scales a nearby tree. Zacchaeus changes his physical perspective in order to be able to see Jesus, but the thing about towering over the crowd to get a better view … it makes you a bit more conspicuous yourself. So it’s not really surprising that Jesus would notice him.
At this point, it also shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus would choose to associate with “one who is a sinner.” But still the crowd grumbles: “He chose him over us?!”
What is surprising, though, is Jesus’s pronouncement of salvation. In an act of apparent confession and repentance, Zacchaeus offers to make amends and repay four times what he has stolen.
But today salvation has come to this house, not for anything Zacchaeus has done or promised to do … but for who he is: “a son of Abraham,” part of God’s chosen people.
Gosh, that sounds awfully Reformation-themed, doesn’t it? All have sinned and fall short … and are now justified by God’s grace … as a gift. (Romans 3:23-24) And: By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
From the perspective of the grumbling crowd, who has presumably done everything “right” and everything they’re “supposed” to do, that has to feel downright offensive.
From the perspective of Jesus, it’s an invitation: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Who was lost? Maybe Zacchaeus, so easily overlooked in a crowd, and not just for his height. And: Maybe the grumbling crowd, lost in their own self-righteousness and resentment that Jesus would dare to include someone like this “sinner.”
It’s all about perspective.
The story begins as Zacchaeus takes the initiative to change his physical perspective – and ends with Jesus taking the opportunity to widen everyone’s perspective of grace.
Speaking of wee little men: Maybe you too have seen the emotional tributes that have poured out over the past week following the sudden and tragic death of beloved actor and comedian Leslie Jordan, who stood at a towering 4’11”. At the beginning of the pandemic, Jordan’s popularity exploded on social media, as he started posting short but relatable videos on his Instagram to his “fellow hunker-downers.”
Leslie Jordan, an openly gay man and rather flamboyantly so at that, also grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was born in 1955. In his memoir, he recalls his desperation to meet other people like himself, and so when he was 17 years old, he set out to find the Cross Keys Lounge, a gay bar in a very “unseemly” part of downtown Chattanooga.
“I suppose in everyone’s life there is a defining moment,” Jordan reflects, “the moment when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again. Mine was the moment I stepped across the threshold of the Cross Keys Lounge in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, in my junior year of high school. I think I exhaled for the first time in my life. I was no longer alone.”
It had to be a perspective-changing moment – to go from feeling alone to finding community like that.
We have this tendency to get trapped in our own “silos” and our own ways of thinking and understanding.
Sometimes those silos are theological and lead to overly-inflated Lutheran egos on Reformation Sunday. Sometimes those silos don’t let us see “Zacchaeus” in our midst, or certainly not that someone like him is worthy of a houseguest like Jesus. Sometimes our silos can feel frighteningly lonesome, and we’d love nothing more than to get out of them, if only we knew how.
Jesus calls us out of our silos, whether they are self-imposed or imposed on us by others.
Jesus came to seek out and to save the lost, whether it’s the one coin that rolled away, the one sheep that got left behind, or the one child who set off on their own.
The older son who stayed at home was probably perfectly content to be rid of his irresponsible younger brother, and I suspect the other 99 sheep probably didn’t even notice one of their herd was missing. But Jesus comes even to these lost ones.
Jesus invites us to change our perspective. Jesus calls us out of our “silos” and into community.
For us who are children of the Reformation, that might mean getting out of the box we wrap around ourselves and our Lutheran identity – and to instead use that box as a platform on which to stand and proclaim the good news of grace:
Today salvation comes to this house and to all people – not for anything we have done or can ever do – but for who we are from God’s perspective: redeemed and loved beyond our wildest imagining.