I’m always sad to see the lectionary readings from the gospel of Luke come to a close because Luke is a gospel for outsiders. Not only is it a gospel for outsiders, it’s a gospel of how these outsiders were warmly welcomed by Jesus. Luke’s welcome begins in Luke 4 where Jesus makes his campaign speech: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” I’d vote for him!
In other words, he came to welcome outsiders: the lost, the forgotten, the oppressed. This went over so well with his listening audience that Luke says “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” [Lk 4:29] Way to go, Jesus! I think that’s a wonderful start to your ministry!
Throughout Luke we are treated to stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; the Woman with the Lost Coin and the Ten Lepers; the Rich Man and Lazarus, as well as today’s gospel lesson the story of Zaccheus. I am going to miss these stories because I’ve always felt like an outsider.
As a kid, my favorite Christmas movie was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I resonated with the plight of the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys. I wanted to liberate them from their suffering and find homes or them where they would be loved. I always felt a bit like Rudolph and was often excluded from playing any reindeer games. This continued through my teen years and is still true to this very day. I am an independent thinker. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. I rarely, if ever, give into peer pressure.
Therefore, Luke is my gospel. It is there, more than anywhere else in the Bible, that I find my people, my tribe. Jesus meets me there, along with all the other outcasts. He runs to embrace us, throws a party for us and says, “Welcome Home!” So, I’m a little sad that the readings from Luke are coming to an end on the First Sunday of Advent.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps others have made you feel like an outsider at some point in your life. It may have happened in your family, at school, at work, among your peers, or even at church. Perhaps people have looked at you like they looked at Zaccheus in our gospel lesson, with ridicule and scorn. Perhaps you’ve been told by others “Jesus loves US, this we know, but he doesn’t really love YOU. There is no way he’s going to dine at YOUR house tonight.”
If you’ve ever felt this way. If you’ve ever been in Zaccheus’ shoes, I want you to hear this morning that Jesus loves you passionately and unconditionally. Jesus loves you for you, just the way you are. You are most definitely welcome at his Table. And, if you accept his invitation, he will follow you home today and dine at your table as well.
This is not only the good news of the story of Zaccheus. It is the good news of Luke’s gospel, and the Bible as well. And if for some reason, you’ve never heard this welcome before, I promise that you will always hear it at Abiding Savior. We are a Reconciled in Christ congregation. We have done our homework. Our Mission statement reads, “We are a diverse church united by a deep love of Jesus and a heart for service in the community. We are dedicated to being a sanctuary (safe-haven) for all of God’s people.” If you’re unsure of what we mean when we say we are “United in Christ. Welcoming All,” we name our outsiders, just like Luke does. We name those who are loved and welcomed by Jesus and by us. The colored beads around the cross, which is our logo, stand for ability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, language, life circumstances, marital status, race and sexual orientation.” If we have somehow left anyone out, let us know about it and we’ll add another colored bead to the circle!
While we’re on the subject of welcoming outsiders, Reformation Sunday is all about this theme. I could have chosen to give you a long, historical sermon with lots of dates and Luther quotes. You would have listened politely and probably nodded off to sleep a time or two. But that’s not really my style! If you want to learn about the history of the Protestant Reformation, or about the life of Martin & Katie Luther, there are many books out there you can read. I can point you in the right direction.
In place of a long history lesson, I’d like to convince you why something that happened nearly 500 years ago, is still important to the Church today. Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the church in Wittenburg for a reason. The Church had become a club of insiders. Sins could be forgiven with the right amount of cash. The practice of selling indulgences, which were slips of paper that forgave sins or shortened your loved one’s time in the fictional place called purgatory, were in full swing. The Church was making money off the fears of the people. The more afraid people were, the more money the Church made. It’s appalling when you think about it.
To add insult to injury, worship services were done in Latin and the Bible was written in Latin as well. People had to rely on the priests to tell them what the Bible said instead of reading it for themselves. Then along came Luther, who was a product of this corrupt system. In his early years, he was a tortured, twisted soul. He would have felt at home on the Island of Misfit Toys! Luther was afraid of God and tried everything he could do to earn God’s forgiveness. It was exhausting.
Then one day Luther had a revelation that changed everything. It happened while he was studying Romans 3, which is our second Lesson for today. The verse that sparked a transformation of his heart, mind and spirit, was verse 31: “We hold that people are justified, that is, made right with God through faith, which has nothing to do with the deeds the law prescribes.” [The Voice]
Luther realized that faith in Jesus was all that was needed to be made right with God. He could have purchased 1000 indulgences but all he would have ended up with were very expensive pieces of paper. Instead of paper, Luther was invited into a loving, grace-filled relationship with God where, as the song says, “God always comes down. God’s love abounds. We open our hearts to receive it. How sweet the sound, The lost are now found, saved by God’s grace through faith alone.” [lyrics by David Eck]
This insight led him to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church. This insight would eventually lead Luther to change the worship space so the priest faced forward during the celebration of communion. Luther also translated the Bible into German so that people could read it for themselves. He wrote hymns based on the popular folk tunes of his day so that people could sing along. (Thankfully, he didn’t have to work with Beyonce.)
This is why the Protestant Reformation is still important to us today. Like Jesus, Luke and St. Paul before him, Luther knew the Church is a place for outsiders. It’s not some exclusive club where membership is given for the right amount of cash and the right kind of pedigree. It’s not the home of an angry God who delights in punishing us for committing the smallest of sins. The Church is a welcoming place, a place where love and grace overflow in a never-ending supply. In a nation where people seem so polarized right now; where people demonize each other and exclude one another from their circle of friends, this is the Good News we’ve all been waiting for!
On this Reformation Sunday my hope is that we will pledge ourselves to continue sharing this life-giving, life-affirming message with everyone we meet, especially those who feel like outsiders. There are a lot of Zaccheus’s out there! There are a lot of people who need to hear that Jesus loves them, this we know, for the Bible tells us so.
Are we up for the challenge? I hope so. Because if there was ever a time when people need to hear what we have to offer, it is now. There are far too many Christian out there who are teaching a version of Jesus that’s so far removed from the Bible I don’t even recognize him. Our voice needs to be as strong and as passionate as theirs. I know this is difficult to do for Lutherans, but we don’t have the luxury or remaining humble and silent any longer. Happy Reformation! Let’s get out there and change the world! AMEN!
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck