“Reforming Over & Again” Colchester Federated Church, October 30, 2022, (Luke 19:1-10) Reformation Sunday

Today’s Gospel story is the story of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector.  It’s a story about God breaking through in someone’s life.  This story can perhaps best be summed up by the children’s song we learned at my UCC church growing up, which can still be recited from memory.  Maybe you know it, too?

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.  And when our 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!’ 

We had hand motions and everything.  The pinnacle moment was when we got to yell, “Zacchaeus, you come down!” 

Maybe that is the pinnacle moment of our story in Luke’s Gospel, and not just in that children’s song.  Jesus doesn’t pass Zacchaeus by as he’s up in that sycamore tree (even though he easily could have done so).  And Zacchaeus doesn’t pass up the chance to get a better look at Jesus by climbing that sycamore tree in the first place.  Luke tells us that Jesus came to that spot and looked up at the ruler among tax collectors in that sycamore tree and beckons Zacchaeus to come down so that Jesus can stay at his home.  Jesus does so even while others grumble that Jesus is going to be the guest of a sinner.

We talked about tax collectors last Sunday when we heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple.  Remember that tax collectors were almost universally despised because they often took a little bit (or a lot) off the top when they collected tolls, market duties, sales tax, income tax, property tax, and inheritance tax.  Plus, people saw them as Roman collaborators who helped them oppress people.  When we encounter Zacchaeus, we can observe that Zacchaeus is the rich ruler among tax collectors!  That’s like saying there’s tax collectors and then there’s Zacchaeus who might as well be Scrooge McDuck swimming in his pool of gold coins. 

Yet Zacchaeus is simultaneously this short man in stature who just wants to see Jesus!  He climbs up that sycamore tree when he figures out what path Jesus will take walking through the city of Jericho.  This action has a way of humanizing the “villain.”  After Zacchaeus meets Jesus, he repents.  He turns and returns to God.  Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay those he may have cheated four times as much.  Jesus responds, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.  The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”[1] 

You want a summary of the Gospel of Luke?  Jesus came to seek out and to save the lost!  The end.  It’s a wonderful story in the Gospel about how God breaks through in our lives and can use unlikely people to further the message of compassion and hope that Jesus preached and embodied. 

Friends, today is Reformation Sunday.  It’s a day where we remember that the Christian Church is at our best when we are open to the movements of God in our world and in our lives.  When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, he didn’t know that this act would lead to a huge split within Christianity and the formation of hundreds of Protestant denominations after his lifetime.  Luther opposed what the Roman Catholic Church was doing at the time—selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins (among other corrupt actions).  People would literally give what little money they had to the Church so that their sins would be forgiven and they would be supposedly guaranteed a place in heaven.  The poor got poorer, and the Church and its leaders got richer.  Luther saw this corruption for what it was and passionately argued against it.

Luther’s beliefs led to five Latin phrases being used during the Protestant Reformation that codified the beliefs of the Reformers.  This may be on the quiz later.  The first was Sola Fide: by faith alone.  The idea that salvation came through faith not works or the sale of indulgences. Sola Scriptura: by Scripture alone.  Protestants argued that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christians, not tradition or the Pope.  Solus Christus: through Christ alone.  Jesus is the one who offers access to God, not priests or any other clergy for that matter.  This idea would develop into the priesthood of all believers.  Sola Gratia, by grace alone.  Salvation comes from what God has done, there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s grace.  And finally, Soli Deo Gloria: glory to God alone.  Our goal as Christians is not to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or look after our own interests.  We live as Christians to glorify God alone.

Now why do we contemplate the Protestant Reformation on this Sunday in the church year?  Because we remember that in some ways, we aren’t done.  The Church remains in need of reformations over and again.  The Church remains a work in progress.  We can remember some of the basic tenets of how we practice our faith in Protestant churches.  We remember that our purpose as Christians is to glorify God.  We’re not trying to be perfect (because we can’t be) and we’re not trying to be so rooted in any tradition that we’re not open to the movements of God here in our world now.  God is still speaking.

The truth is that we are experiencing seismic shifts in the Christian Church as we are coming through this pandemic.  The truth is that pastors are leaving or moving to new churches in droves and churches are closing.  Though it’s amazing to think that we now livestream our worship services and folks can watch and participate who are homebound or need to be especially cautious with their own health, let alone friends who live in different states.  We’re seeing all sorts of both/and moments of losses and gains. 

Perhaps all this change all at once will force Christians to work together in ways that we haven’t before or in a long time.  Perhaps the future of churches is being Federated like we are here, where we have people who join as members of the United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches, or Federated—choosing to join this particular local church and neither denomination.  Who knew we were such trend setters since our congregation did this 73 years ago! 

The truth of the Protestant Reformation is that it did cause division.  Maybe in our own time we are being invited to come back together across our differences if we’re at least able to agree on some of the basic tenets of our faith.  It’s too soon to say how this is all going to play out.  I am always hesitant about anyone who claims to have all the answers now.  Though we can be comforted that this is not all that unique to us.  Because this is the invitation of the Christian Church for every generation—to keep reforming over and again in response to an ever-changing world.  What does the future hold for our congregation here at Colchester Federated Church?  I was kinda hoping you had all the answers.  I’m not sure of much these days.  In so many ways the present and the future is up to us and it’s up to God.  In the meantime, let us be present to each other on our journeys of life and faith.  Let us give thanks to God who remains with us through it all.  Amen.

[1] Luke 19:9-10, CEB.

Photo by Preston Goff on Unsplash