As we begin a new year, I know many United Methodists are wondering, “Where do things stand regarding the protocol for separating the church? Is it still on track? Why haven’t we heard much about it lately?”
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was created by a sixteen-member panel of leading traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, including several bishops. Advocacy groups spanning the theological spectrum, including Good News, the Confessing Movement, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Reconciling Ministries Network, UMC Next, and Mainstream UMC all endorsed the Protocol.
It seemed certain the protocol would be passed at General Conference 2020 and we who want to maintain the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and those who wish to change United Methodism’s Scripturally-based standards would be able to go our separate ways. But the COVID pandemic caused General Conference to be postponed and the focus of the church has rightly been on helping those who are suffering during this difficult time. So, the protocol has taken a back seat these past several months.
General Conference is now scheduled for this coming August. There is some discussion about the possibility of holding a virtual Conference with delegates being able to participate online from home or gathered together in several regional centers across the world. Whether virtually or in person, the plan at present is for General Conference to convene in August and to take up the protocol. The protocol and the future of the UM Church will again take center stage.
So, what’s the status of the protocol and the likelihood of its passage? Despite some talk that the General Conference might again be postponed because international delegates may find travel restrictions due to the pandemic (see page 22), we believe it is still on track and will be passed by General Conference this year.
Not everyone agrees. Some bishops have reported to us privately that commitment for the protocol is waning among some of their colleagues. Due to our many years of division and the economic effects of the pandemic, general church apportionments are being paid at the lowest rate ever. More “institutional” bishops are concerned about the future viability of the denomination and what the departure of traditional congregations will mean for the UM Church going forward.
Nevertheless, we are optimistic that by this time next year, General Conference will have made a way for annual conferences and congregations who wish to depart to do so.
No one wants to repeat what happened at the General Conference in St. Louis. Earlier this year Bishop Cynthia Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops, stated her support of the protocol, “We could not continue the harm we were doing to each other; we needed a better way… it became very clear that [separation] was the next step we needed to take.”
The pandemic has changed many things, but it has not changed our need to put an end to the fighting and the division that has done so much harm.
The various advocacy groups mentioned above as supporting the protocol have been the ones in the trenches, strategizing, recruiting, organizing, and competing against each other to carry the day at General Conference. None of these groups has stated a change in their commitment to the protocol.
Recently, the Western Jurisdiction, the most liberal in the UM Church, issued a statement under the heading “Where Love Lives.” In their press release, Bishop Karen Oliveto, president of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops said, “The Western Jurisdiction is committed to living out our belief that God’s church is open to all. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation offers a way forward to begin easing the five decades of pain created by the wounds inflicted on LGBTQ persons by the church.”
It appears that the primary group that might work against the protocol’s passage is the institutional bishops, who are the same ones who have wanted to deny the depth of our division in the past. They are the ones who have offered the false hope that we could find a way to be one church with two different views of the Bible and competing sexual ethics. And they are starting to create the narrative that now is not the time for separation because the institutional UM Church cannot survive it.
We are optimistic. We believe the protocol is likely to pass. But we are also realistic. The battle is not yet over. Voices opposing separation are likely to surface. Progressives have already been to Africa telling bishops, pastors, and delegates they should remain within the continuing UM Church in order to continue receiving the financial support for their ministries they are accustomed to. (They conveniently ignore the fact that the dramatic decline in apportionment payments is already resulting in cuts to funding for African ministry, and that the departure of many traditionalist American congregations will further diminish the continuing UM Church’s ability to financially support ministry in Africa.)
The protocol was negotiated in order to avoid a contentious and litigious separation. Failure to pass the protocol or something like it could result in the acrimonious splintering of the denomination costing millions of dollars in legal fees.
After attending and working for our biblical views at seven past General Conferences, I know nothing is ever certain until the last vote has been taken. I also know how important it is that we remain vigilant and active as we prepare for General Conference.
Traditionalists will continue to reach out to our partners in Africa and in other parts of the world to keep support for the protocol strong. Additionally, we will be staying in touch with bishops who support the cause of a peaceful separation.
We are so close to creating a new future for faithful Methodists. Passing the protocol will allow Bible-believing churches and annual conferences to step into that new day with their property and congregations intact. One last push and the battle will be over.
“There are no doctrinal litmus tests in the movement. We are moving beyond the supremacy of a single belief system,” said the Rev. Janet McKeithen, a member of the Connexion.
By Heather Hahn –
A group of progressive United Methodists and other Christians launched a new denomination named the Liberation Methodist Connexion, or LMX. The new church aims to center on the voices of people of color as well as queer and transgender individuals — those the LMX organizers see as marginalized in The United Methodist Church.
“We are a grassroots denomination of former, current, and non-Methodist faith leaders working on the unfolding of the kin-dom of God,” the Connexion says on its website. “We intentionally invite the full participation of all who are living out their God-given identities and expressions.”
Organizers announced the new denomination’s formation with an online worship service, presentation, and after-party on Nov. 29, the first Sunday of Advent and the start of the Christian year. The new denomination’s organizers, a number of whom are LGBTQ, said they feel called to act now.
“The timeline of the Holy Spirit is driving our decision to launch the LMX at this moment, and we are following her call,” the Rev. Althea Spencer-Miller told UM News by email. Spencer-Miller, a New Testament professor at United Methodist Drew Theological School, is one of more than 40 collaborators who are helping to establish the new church. She and other collaborators declined to say how many congregations or people are part of the new denomination at launch. Organizers said by email they do not want to equate worth with volume.
Among the collaborators are both United Methodist pastors and lay people, including at least three church leaders elected to be General Conference delegates or reserve delegates. The new Connexion is not asking people to choose between the LMX and their affiliations with other faith communities, Spencer-Miller said by email and at the event.
Ian Carlos Urriola, another collaborator and veteran General Conference delegate, said at the event that the new denomination plans to work with The United Methodist Church’s official racial and ethnic caucuses, “ensuring that we remain in relationship with our forebearers in the struggle.”
At this point, the Liberation Methodist Connexion has obtained tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in the United States. The new church also is in process of applying for a group exemption with the IRS to simplify the administrative process for its congregations and ministries.
The new Connexion has no doctrinal litmus tests, said the Rev. Janet G. McKeithen, a member of the new denomination’s working group. The LMX focuses more on actions than beliefs, Spencer-Miller later added. “We seek not answers that lead us to correct doctrines as to why we suffer. We seek correct actions, correct praxis where God sustains us during the unanswerable questions,” Spencer-Miller said during the online event.
Such actions – the Connexion’s website notes – include reparations, caring for the earth, and freeing Methodist tradition of colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustice, sexism, ableism, ageism, and heteronormativity.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia reporter for UM News.
Former NFL center Jason Brown with his children (from left) Judah, Jason, Olivia, Noah, and Tre. First Fruits Farm, Browns’ farm in Louisburg, N.C., donates a portion of its harvest to the Society of St. Andrew. Photo courtesy of the Browns.
By Jim Patterson –
Potatoes connect former NFL player Jason Brown and part-time nurse and mother-of-four Lindsey Whitley, though they don’t know each other. Whitley’s home in Indian Trail, North Carolina, is about 200 miles from Brown’s farm in Louisburg. Potatoes from Brown’s 1,000-acre North Carolina property end up as potato soup on the Whitley dinner table through the work of the Society of St. Andrew. The Virginia-based non-profit works to share healthy food and reduce food waste.
The food chain in the U.S. has built-in waste, said the Rev. Michael Binger, a United Methodist and North Carolina regional director for the Society of St. Andrew. Farmers routinely enter into contracts to provide less food than they usually grow, in order to guard against weather and other factors that might result in smaller harvests than expected, Binger said. They try to sell the excess. If they can’t, the Society of St. Andrew seeks the donation of the crops that would otherwise be headed for landfills as garbage.
“Nationwide we do about 30 million pounds of produce a year,” Binger said. Most of the food is distributed in the southeastern U.S. Foundation grants and donations from churches and individuals fund the organization.
“The great thing about what we do, it’s tangible,” Binger said. “You can see the truck coming to the church parking lot and know you’ve distributed 120,000 servings of produce to your community. … You can touch and see and know the impact that you’ve had right around you.”
First Fruits Farm was founded by former NFL center Jason Brown in 2013, after he ditched the career that made him a millionaire. He played seven seasons for the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams before walking away at the age of 29 from lucrative offers to continue playing.
In 2012, Jason and wife, Tay, packed up their family and moved back to North Carolina, buying the land that became First Fruits Farm. Unlike other farms that donate excess food to the hungry, First Fruits donates almost all of its harvest every year. Donations and rental income from an event hall help to pay the bills.
Volunteers help maintain and gather the bounty. First Fruits Farm estimates it has provided more than 1.6 million servings of fresh produce since 2014. Crops include sweet corn, potatoes, snap beans, cabbage, pumpkins, tomatoes, and peppers.
Binger said his ministry getting food to people who need it is rewarding. “I get to see everybody at their absolute best, when I know that God is working through them and shining through them. The farmers are at their most generous. The volunteers are at their happiest and most giving. I get our donors at their sacred place. I get the agencies at their most grateful. At every step along the way, there is the joy of God in what we do.”
Jim Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee.
Songteller, Chronicle Books, 2020.
By Steve Beard –
I spent the holidays with Dolly Parton.
Well, not literally. Like everything else in 2020, it was all virtual – and it was a whirlwind.
Throughout her rhinestone-studded career, Dolly has sold over 100 million albums, starred in countless movies and TV specials, launched an extraordinary book-gifting program, opened a theme park that attracts more than 3 million visitors per year, and has written over 3,000 songs. More than 200 of her songs have been covered by other artists.
One of twelve children, Parton was born in a log cabin in East Tennessee without electricity. At 74 years old, her literal rags-to-riches story continues to inspire fans across the spectrum around the world. Despite finding tremendous popularity under the bright lights of country music, Dolly’s magnetic folksy appeal has always extended far beyond Nashville.
During the holiday season, she was featured in a Netflix musical, released a joyous Christmas album, seemingly appeared on all the network television holiday specials, and accepted the “Hitmaker” award at the Billboard Women in Music ceremony. Oh yeah, she also helped fund the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.
“I may look like a show pony,” Dolly has famously said, “but I am a workhorse.”
Also released over the holidays was Dolly’s book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics – a 380-page collection of photographs and behind-the-scenes insights from dozens of her most well-known songs. At thirteen years old, none other than Johnny Cash introduced her to the crowd at the Grand Ole Opry. Dolly provides backstory snippets regarding famous collaborations with Porter Wagoner, Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins, Merle Haggard, and Kenny Rogers.
Fans know that Dolly had to make a heartbreaking decision to turn down Elvis’s request to record – and own the publishing rights to – her megahit, “I Will Always Love You.” “I cried my eyes out, because I could just hear Elvis singing it,” she confessed. “But sometimes you just have to stand your ground.”
Dolly has the untutored gift to honor her backwoods traditional roots and simultaneously stretch her unique wings of independence. You can’t help but grin when she writes about hanging out at Studio 54 – the flamboyant 1970s New York City disco night club: “Everybody was dancing. I didn’t…. I’d just sit on the couch and talk to Andy Warhol.” What a sight that must have been.
Behind the razzle-dazzle showbiz appearance and savvy business mind beats an unapologetic heart of faith. Although she capitalizes on her popularity, she offers a strong note of caution regarding our culture’s off-kilter obsession with celebrity.
“Every day, I ask God to help me lift people up and to glorify Him. That’s my mission, to lift mankind up if I can and to make people happy,” she writes in Songteller. “If there’s any light shining on me, I’d rather direct it at Him. I get a little scared sometimes when people act like I’m someone they’re worshipping…. I don’t believe in idol worship of any kind. People often do that to show business people and that’s scary to me. That’s when I say, ‘No look higher. Look up there. It ain’t me. Let me radiate His light, so that people see Him, not me.’”
Dolly grew up attending services at her Grandpa Jake’s House of Prayer. “He preached about Hell so hot that you could feel the heat,” she recalls. While it may have been all fire from the pulpit, Grandpa Jake provided young Dolly an indispensable platform to play the songs she was writing. “I feel like I’m closest to God when I write. I have to leave myself open for the songs to come in or go out,” she writes. “But God doesn’t hand you everything. You have to do the work.”
During songwriting retreats, she prays and fasts – for many days. “If you fast, it cleanses your body as well as your mind, so you can leave yourself more open to God,” she writes. “Fasting is awful. You’ve gotta pray hard, and you gotta have a lot of faith.” Despite the struggle, after several days, she senses a more fluid writing release in what she terms “God space” when lyrics begin to flow.
She humorously writes about a time when her musical family was playing at a different church in the mountains when they discovered the congregation practiced snake handling. “When those snakes came out, my daddy came running down the aisle, cussing the preacher in the middle of that church…. He was scared to death of snakes, and he didn’t believe in that kind of worship.”
One of the songs highlighted in the book is from her 1973 album, “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” It is a touching tribute to a Methodist minister and physician named Dr. Robert F. Thomas (1891-1980). Notoriously suspicious of outsiders, the folks living in the hills and hollers of the Smoky Mountains did not always greet Dr. Thomas with open arms. “A lot of them would hold a gun on him,” writes Parton. “If my wife dies or my daughter dies, you’re going to die, too,” they would say. Thankfully, it never went beyond empty threats doled out in fear.
“I was born on January 19, and it was snowing,” writes Dolly. “When I was trying to be born, Mom was having trouble so Daddy had to ride his horse out to Pittman to get Dr. Thomas to ride with him back to our place.” With no money, the Parton family paid the doctor with a sack of cornmeal.
Dolly never forgot the open-hearted ministry of Dr. Thomas. In her song, she called him a “mighty, mighty man [who] enriched the lives of everyone that ever knew him … a man the Lord must have appointed to live among us mountain folks in eastern Tennessee.”
In addition to his medical ministry, Dr. Thomas also pastored a congregation. “I still remember that antiseptic smell in his little clinic by the church,” she writes in Songteller. “He was there to save those poor people of the mountains, and he was kind of a savior to us.” If you visit Dollywood, she honors his legacy with a beautiful chapel on the premises named after Dr. Thomas. It hosts services every Sunday that the park is open.
When Dolly was young, a relative prophesized over her that she was going to do something special. She laid her hands on Dolly and said, “This child is anointed.” Not understanding, Dolly asked, “Mama, what does ‘anointed’ mean?” Her mom replied, “That probably means that you’re going to do great things for the Lord and do good things in life.”
There is indeed something very special about Dolly. Many years ago, I met her at a press conference for Joyful Noise, a film she did with Queen Latifah. “Are we kin?” she asked me. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. “Are we related? Where are you from?” she pressed.
Here I was standing face to face with one of my all-time favorite performers and I was tongue-tied and muttered, “Well, I’ve lived in Kentucky for 20 years, but I was raised in Southern California and my family is from Pennsylvania and Iowa.”
Undeterred, after the press conference, she came right back at me with that trademark sassy determination: “I still think we might be kin!”
Her radiant smile and effervescent spirit had me almost wondering if she might be right. She is a national treasure and a trainload of joy.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
Awakening Newborn Stars. Lying inside our home galaxy, the Milky Way, this Herbig–Haro object is a turbulent birthing ground for new stars in a region known as the Orion B molecular cloud complex, located 1,350 light-years away. Photo courtesy of NASA.
By Jessica LaGrone –
2020 was a mess.
It was a global health mess, an economic mess, a political mess. It messed up our events, our holidays, our plans, and our lives. Some lives were certainly more devastated than others, whether by illness or grief or financial devastation, but most people are emerging from 2020 a little battered, bruised, and tired of the unpredictable chaos in which we have been living.
Turning the page into the new year, 2021, feels almost like pausing a horror movie in the middle to grab a snack, then returning to wonder: “Is this story going to resolve, or will the horror only get worse in the next scene?”
We’ve certainly had our fill of mess in 2020. Most of us are crying: “Enough chaos, already! Let’s get back to the predictable, ordinary world we miss so much.” Instead of finishing the horror movie, many of us are tempted to change the channel entirely and see if there’s a syrupy, predictable RomCom on, something to distract and disengage.
What if chaos doesn’t have to lead to despair, but can lead to creativity? As those who worship the Creator God, we don’t have to look far to find reasons to engage rather than reject the mess we’ve been handed. Creating from chaos is a foundational part of who we are.
1. Chaos is often a sign that something new is emerging. We don’t have to look past page one of Scripture to find that chaos isn’t always a sign of disaster. It can actually signal a new start.
Genesis 1:2 tells us that even as God set about creating the universe we live in, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Tohu vavohu, the lyrical Hebrew words rhyme out the description: formless void.
This watery chaos, wild and waste, was the starting point of everything we know, everything we see, all because our Creator God has a gift for creating beauty from chaos. God forms order from chaos and fills emptiness. When He says: “Let there be light!” darkness vanishes, and ever since the light has shined in darkness and the dark has not overcome it.
God’s job description: order from chaos, fullness from emptiness, light from darkness, does not end on that first page. We find him engaged in these acts in every chapter of Scripture, and he’s still cleaning up chaos in every chapter of our lives. When Paul described it he got a bit dramatic: If anyone is in Christ… New Creation! (2 Corinthians 5:17) When Jesus comes onto the scene, it’s like our lives get turned back to page one. Chaos ordered, emptiness filled, darkness banished.
Here’s something worth holding onto, for everyone who will ever feel dark or danger, depression or deep distress, here’s where it becomes utterly clear on page one: darkness is not of God. It is separate from him. God is separate from the darkness, but he’s also present in it. He’s not frightened of it. He’s not afraid to walk right up to it and command it. Create from it. Darkness, which will haunt human history in many forms, is simply an ingredient to God. Chaos is something to be shaped and formed by him for the grander recipe to come.
For those who have come out of 2020 staggering and struggling, take heart: God is not confounded by chaos. When we see chaos, he sees the beginning of this original recipe: He simply sets about making all things new.
2. Chaos can inspire innovation. Einstein was supposed to have famously asked: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
He certainly practiced what he preached.
On the day Einstein died, a journalist who heard the news of the famous scientist’s death rushed to the genius’s office to capture the scene of his work on his last day on earth. The surviving photograph shows a desk hidden under crumpled, disorganized papers, a bookshelf half-filled with books stuffed in sideways. In short: a disaster area. This, from the man who gave us simple yet intricate formulas that explained the nature of the universe. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it seems chaos and genius are next door neighbors too.
Psychologist Kathleen Vohs set out to research the question of whether a messy environment might spur more creativity, more problem solving, and more innovation than a spotless, sparkling workspace. She and her team organized two separate rooms in their laboratory. Or rather, they organized one and disorganized the other, with untidy, cluttered spaces and papers strewn about. Then they studied their subjects in two separate experiments.
In one, they determined whether the subjects selected an option marked “new” or “classic” (they were identical in description except for that one word.) Far more people in the messy environment selected the item described as “new.” The conclusion was that subjects surrounded by order chose convention, and those who were already disrupted by their environment chose novelty.
In the second experiment they gave subjects ping pong balls and asked them to brainstorm uses for them, listing as many functions for ping pong balls as they could come up with. While the subjects came up with the same number of results, the alternative uses named by those in messy rooms were much more creative and fresh in the odd uses they invented. It turns out that being subjected to chaos can actually make us more innovative and creative than an orderly environment.
You may be thinking: That’s definitely not me. I can’t work in a messy place. I need to have order, a clean desk, and everything sorted nicely before I can really begin. That may have been a great 2019 philosophy, but in 2020 it just wasn’t possible. Most of us experienced a disruption of our work, our ministries, our families.
The good news is that disruption is the mother of invention. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly given us plenty of chances to prove this hypothesis. Churches and ministries have had to go out of their way to discover new channels of ministry they would never have developed unless their normal routines were disrupted. Perhaps we can learn something from having the status-quo yanked out from under us. Chaos gives us the impetus we need to be creative, to launch new initiatives in new ways.
The starry night outside of Shahmirzad, located in the north of Iran and on the southern slopes of the Alborz Mountains. Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi.
3. You (yes you!) are creating from chaos all the time. If you are human, you are creative. You may not identify wholeheartedly with that title. Maybe you can’t even draw a stick figure or make an omelet. But as we walk through each day, we are all taking the vast world of raw material we live in and making something of it, making a life for ourselves out of what we have been handed.
Since only God creates something from nothing, the rest of us are forced to use what lies in front of us. Our raw materials include not only the good and gilded creation that he handed us, but also the tarnished elements of the fallen world that we live in, touched by sin and tinged with imperfection. Our task at times seems like spinning straw into gold – uncovering glimmers of the original God-created shine and weaving them into what we make of the world. Other times, we end up unweaving the tapestry – spinning the gold back into straw – makers of mistakes, wrong opinions, wrongs, and hurts.
None of us gets by using only the easy ingredients, the appetizing ones that everyone puts on their list. It’s like one of those cooking shows where they give you a nice basket of ingredients and you begin making beautiful, tasty plans for, what? A key lime pie? A chocolate torte? and then, Boom! The secret surprise ingredient is thrown in. Sardines! Put that in your cake! Plot twist.
Many of us have experienced the same as we sort out the ingredients we’re handed in life. We read the recipe carefully, slowly combining what we think will work best, when all of a sudden: A new ingredient is thrown at us! A child with learning challenges. A career that never takes off the way we dreamed. A parent with dementia. A global pandemic. Plot twist! How will it all come out of the oven now?
We’re all making something of the basket we’ve been handed. Making decisions. Making opinions. Making mistakes. Whether you can carry a tune or draw a stick figure, the number of artists on earth is exactly equal to the population size. The question is no longer: are you a maker? But: What do you make of it all?
We are all making something of ourselves as we make this chaotic and messy world into something together. Consider the end of your day as compared to the beginning: What is in the world at dusk that was not there at dawn? A meal well prepared and enjoyed? A conversation? A compliment? A freshly mown lawn or a reassuring smile? All of these are creations. Less straw. More gold.
The chaos isn’t going anywhere. But neither is the God who twirls it beneath his fingers, kneading it deftly, making the most of the world he has made. Evening and morning: one more day. And it was good.
Jessica LaGrone is a United Methodist clergyperson and the Dean of Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary. Her books and studies include Namesake: When God Rewrites Your Story; Under Wraps; Broken and Blessed: How God Used One Imperfect Family to Change the World; Set Apart: Holy Habits of Prophets and Kings; and The Miracles of Jesus. The Rev. LaGrone’s latest book, Converting Chaos, is scheduled for release by Seedbed/Zondervan in 2022.
Original artwork by Sam Wedelich (www.samwedelich.com).
By Scott Sauls –
To the surprise of many, Jesus gave special, affirmational attention to the man Zacchaeus, who is identified in scripture as a chief tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). Because of his role as tax collector for the Roman treasury, Zacchaeus would have been hated by the members of his community. Tax collectors, and especially chief tax collectors, were known as what we might call white-collar thieves. These were men in power who made a habit of exploiting an unjust system – and specifically, the hardworking people living inside that system – for personal gain.
If you were a tax collector, government authorities would impose on you a quota for the amount of money you were to collect from citizens. Once your quota was satisfied, any further monies collected were yours to keep. This, of course, led most tax collectors to extort monies from citizens that were far above and beyond their actual tax burdens. To make matters worse, tax collectors lived opulent, self-indulgent lifestyles for all to see.
This helps us understand why tax collectors specifically were so despised in first-century Roman society. Who could feel anything but contempt for a powerful, self-serving crook?
We can safely assume that Zacchaeus had no one in Jericho he could identify as a friend or a fan. When he walked through the crowds and climbed up into a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus, he did so all alone (Luke 19:1-4). His aloneness in the tree seems to communicate his costly reality – one that is not uncommon for powerful people who’ve built their empires by taking advantage of others – though he has become rich, he has also become isolated.
Since first-century tax collectors were perhaps the most despised people in their communities, it is puzzling to observe how positively the Gospels seem to speak concerning them. In Luke’s gospel, for example, tax collectors are mentioned six times – including the account of Zacchaeus – and in every instance the posture toward them is positive. In chapter three, tax collectors are baptized into the family of God. In chapter five, the tax collector Matthew is welcomed by Jesus into his circle of twelve disciples. (Matthew would later become the writer of the first of the four gospel accounts.) In chapter seven, tax collectors warmly and inquisitively receive Jesus’ teaching. In chapter fifteen, tax collectors and sinners gather around Jesus to hear him teach. In chapter eighteen, Jesus tells a parable of a smug, self-righteous religious man (who is sent home condemned and rejected) and a humble, penitent tax collector (who is sent home forgiven and accepted). Finally, in the Zacchaeus account in chapter nineteen, this man who is chief tax collector receives the gifts of friendship and salvation from Jesus.
The world looks at the likes of Zacchaeus and wants to judge, reprimand, and punish. Jesus, on the other hand, moves toward him, calls him by name, and offers to eat with him. Looking up at this lonely crook, Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
A Good Name Given. In the chapter of Luke’s gospel prior to the Zacchaeus account, another more virtuous rich man encounters Jesus – a man we have come to know as “the rich young ruler.” Unlike Zacchaeus, he is a religious man who has likely made his money through honest means. He has attended the temple faithfully, is a pillar of his religious and civic communities, and has, by his own account, kept the law of God since the days of his youth.
We are told Jesus looks at the rich man, loves him, and says to him that if he really wants to live, if he wants to be rich in the truest and most enduring sense of the word, he should sell all he has, give it to the poor, and then follow Jesus. Jesus does not offer this prescription to the young man because he has too much money, but because his money has too much of him. Recognizing that he has great wealth, the young ruler decides that Jesus’ invitation is too much. So he turns around and he walks away sad.
Following this encounter, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! … [I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples respond incredulously, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus comforts them with a gentle answer, saying, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:24-30).
So possible that another rich man – the lowly tax collector, Zacchaeus – receives salvation on the spot as he responds to Jesus’ gentle, surprising invitation. “Zacchaeus! Hurry, come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Once in Zacchaeus’s house, Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Did you catch that? The very man society deems as unredeemable, Jesus identifies as a son of Abraham, the father of all who are faithful. Because this is what Jesus does: He takes a bad name and turns it into a good name. He says to the outsider, “You belong,” and to the outlaw, “Your sins will not be held against you,” and to the shame and regret that drove the sinner up into the tree alone, “I’m coming to your house today. And there, in your house and on your turf, Zacchaeus, I’m going to show you a love and a hospitality like you’ve never dreamed. For your house and your turf, from this point forward, are going to be my house and my turf. I’m going to rearrange your furniture. I’m going to be your new decorator – both interior and exterior. I’m not coming to your house so you can serve me, but so I can serve you; not so you can feed me, but so I can feed you; not so you can take me in, but so I can take you in.”
Jesus invites us to come to him as we are – “Zacchaeus! Come down from that tree. I’m coming to your house today!” – but this must never be mistaken for an invitation to stay as we are. As was the case with Zacchaeus, so it is with us.
When Jesus comes to our house, he doesn’t do so merely to take our side. He does so in order to take over. His “I do not condemn you” always leads to the imperative, “Now leave your life of sin.” He is not our consultant or adviser. He is not our personal assistant. He is our Lord. He has come to save us, and in saving us, to rearrange our furniture, to turn our house into his house, to become the interior and exterior designer of our lives, for the rest of our lives.
The Scandal of a Gentle Answer. The scandal around Jesus is a reality that distinguishes Christianity from every other world religion, as well as from all forms of human philosophy and politics: Jesus and Christianity do not discriminate between good people and bad people. Instead, Jesus and Christianity discriminate between humble people and proud people. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Consider Jesus’ ancestry – members of faith’s “hall of fame” who were simultaneously and seasonally saint and sinner, virtuous and terrible, selfless and selfish, faithful and prodigal. Noah faithfully built the ark, and he also got drunk. Abraham believed the promises of God and walked courageously by faith, and he also handed his wife over to sex-hungry men twice in order to protect himself. Jacob became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he also lied to secure a birthright that belonged to his brother. Solomon was the wisest man on earth, and he was also a womanizer. Rahab valiantly protected the Israelite spies, and she was also a sex worker.
In the Gospels we again see this “simultaneously saint and sinner” dynamic among the friends of Jesus. A despised Samaritan is made the hero of one of Jesus’ most famous parables, as is a prodigal son who wishes his father dead and then squanders his inheritance on prostitutes and wild living. The religious folk disapproved of Jesus’ questionable friendships and regularly reprimanded him for being a glutton, a drunk, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11:19). Though Jesus was never actually guilty of being a glutton, a drunk, a greedy man, or a sinner, he was suspected of all of these and more because of the friendships he kept. He was, we might say, guilty by association.
Indeed, Jesus readily availed himself as friend and Savior to outsiders and outlaws, to those regarded as losers and lowbrows and scumbags and pimps and whores and crooks. Maybe this is why the morally upright folk seemed to constantly take issue with Jesus. Maybe this is why they made a habit of criticizing him, discrediting him, belittling him, and becoming aggressive toward him. Maybe this is why they eventually killed him – because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.
But if you are Zacchaeus, instead of being repelled by Jesus, you are drawn irresistibly toward him. There is something about his kindness, something about his gentleness that makes Zacchaeus and others who, like him, have made a moral train wreck of their lives want to come out of the tree and have dinner with him. If you are Zacchaeus, you don’t say in shock, “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Instead, you say with wonder and awe and gratitude, “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with us.”
This is the fundamental difference between human religion and Christianity. All of us, without exception, are hopelessly stuck and isolated in sin and selfishness – unless and until Jesus looks up at us in the tree, calls us by name, and tells us to hurry up and come down to him because he is coming to our house today.
Understanding this humbling reality, and letting it get massaged deeply into our hearts so that it reorients our posture, is an essential key to becoming instruments of God’s grace, peace, and gentleness in a culture of outrage.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of numerous books. Taken from A Gentle Answer: Out Secret Weapon in an Age of Us Against Them by Scott Sauls. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Sauls. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.