Luke 19: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 30, 2016
When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I hardly ever invited friends over to my house, that is, inside my house. A few times friends came over to play in the backyard, but not in the house. Perhaps it was because our house was small—I’m guessing around 700 square feet. Maybe it was because our house was pretty messy—lots of books, our furniture stuffed into this small house—we had an old, used grand piano in the living room that my parents bought, the family legend says, for $70.
The real reason was one I would not realize until I was a teenager, until after we moved out of that house, until after my parents divorced. The real reason I hardly ever invited friends over to my house, that is, inside my house, is because my father was an alcoholic. I had no idea at the time that my father had a drinking problem. I only knew that from time to time, weird and strange things would happen. When I was six years old there was the night I found my father passed out face down on the floor next to his side of the bed and thought he was dead. Or the time my younger brother and I came home from school, our father was home, but the back door was locked. My brother banged so hard on one of the small window panes in the door that he broke the glass and had to get stitches. Or when my father bragged he was driving without a license because it had been taken away from him. Or when he went ice skating with my mom and stumbled getting onto the rink, banged his head on the ice, and needed 11 stitches.
It wasn’t only this weird, strange house that I did not want friends coming into—it was my life, a secret life that I was only half aware of. It made for a lot of loneliness, sadness, and pain. That is, until high school when I found really good church: a new church start that was as old as I was. Don’t get me wrong; the sadness and pain didn’t exactly go away. Rather, I found a community of honest, loving people I could share it with. And in return, they showed me who Jesus is.
Every week in worship a lay person would take a turn doing the Prayers of the People. What that meant was someone would share their own individual prayer, from their own vulnerable spiritual journey, in front of the whole congregation. And in that first-person prayer I heard myself in their struggles and weaknesses, in their worries and fears, in their strengths and blessings, and in their joy. I got to know these grown-ups in their unashamed love for church and for God. I connected.
It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I began to come to grips with the fact that growing up with an alcoholic affected me in negative ways. And so it was in Al-Anon that I found another community of honest, loving people with whom I did not have to hide, with whom there was no shame. We all knew why we were there and that we needed each other. I invited these women into my childhood home again and again until I could see my parents as human beings who were doing the best that they could with what they had.
Jesus hung out with sinners not only because they needed him but because there was nothing to hide, and with him there was no shame—only compassion and forgiveness. In this story about Zacchaeus, the so-called righteous ones grumble and complain that Jesus wants to be the guest of a sinner, and yet this supposed sinner is happy to welcome Jesus. Whose house would you go to? “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/‘cause sinners are much more fun/Only the good die young”, the song goes.
Jesus said he came to save the lost, but they weren’t lost to God—they were lost to everyone else and sometimes to themselves. They were lost to community and belonging. They didn’t know how to find wholeness and forgiveness on their own. None of us really do. How do we learn to forgive except by the necessity of it? How do we find wholeness if there is no one to help us pick up the broken pieces? Everyone assumed Zacchaeus was crooked because he was the chief tax collector and he was rich. For those reasons alone he was lost to his community, no longer a son of Abraham, the covenant broken. But Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus and finds one who is extravagantly generous and open-hearted. Jesus says that today salvation has come to this house—restoration, reconciliation, what is broken is now whole again.
Today is Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday in the Protestant church. For 499 years Catholics and Protestants have not been fully welcome at each other’s tables, each other’s houses, our covenant broken, all of us Christians, not entirely lost to each other but not exactly found either. We have been at war with each other, we've persecuted each other, we’ve been suspicious of one another, but we’ve also endeavored to work together, talk to each other, listen to each other.
A year ago this month, Pope Francis spoke to a national conference of the Italian church, to the theme “A new humanism in Jesus Christ”, and said these words, “Christine doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives—but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened. It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”
He went on to say, “If we do not lower ourselves, we will not see his face. …You, therefore, go forth to the streets and go to the crossroads: all who you find, call out to them, no one is excluded. Wherever you are, never build walls or borders, but meeting squares and field hospitals.” Pope Francis wants a church “that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect…a happy church with a face of a mother who understands, accompanies, caresses.”
Isn’t that what we all long for? Community that understands, accompanies, caresses. Community that seeks out the lost because we know what it means to be lost. Community for sinners because we know why we’re here and that we need each other. Community that realizes that it’s doing the best that it can with what it has. Community that offers grace above all.
At the table of the righteous we can’t always sure if we belong. We may have to justify our place, stretch the truth a bit, compare ourselves to someone else. But at the sinner’s table everyone is welcome. Catholics and all stripes of Protestants and Orthodox Christians may not agree on the theology of the Eucharist, but when we gather at the table and Jesus is both guest and host, we’re all there for the same reason. We need help and we need each other. We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all done something, sometime of which we are ashamed, we all need reconciliation and forgiveness: we want to be restored.
The sinner’s table is the table of reconciliation, and God wants everyone to come to dinner. Authors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland in their book If Grace Is True describe what is to be found at this great banquet. Enemies will be seated next to each other. Those who hurt us washing our feet with their tears. They write, “You may complain that I do not understand what they did to you. How cruel and petty and evil they were. How they showed no remorse. You may stomp your foot and refuse to be seated next to them. You may say you can never forgive them. …But then someone will tap you on the shoulder and you’ll turn to look into the eyes of someone you hurt. Someone to whom you were cruel and petty and evil. Someone to whom you never apologized. Someone who has every right to refuse to sit with you. But who will instead say, ‘I forgive you’.”
Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God is willing to wait as long as it takes until we are all at the table. Jesus is ready to come to our house today. What in the world are we waiting for?