Free Pews and a Dangerous Welcome

“Zacchaeus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

These words were surprising to the crowds that had gathered in Jericho. Jesus and his disciples are passing through Jericho on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jericho is a desert city, an oasis fed by springs, the last stop on the way before climbing up to Jerusalem. Jericho was an important center of commerce and agriculture.

Zacchaeus was a wealthy and powerful man. He’d found a role as the representative of the occupying force, the Romans. In the eyes of his people, he had betrayed them. He collected taxes for the emperor, and in the minds of the people, his wealth probably meant that was keeping some back for himself. He was cheating his neighbors. Zachaeus was a criminal, a traitor, and a sinner.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

We know the crowds were upset. “He has got to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” I wonder how Jesus’ followers felt. Jesus’ welcome had caused problems before. He spent time with lepers, “the possessed” (folks on the edge of society that today we might diagnose with schizophrenia). Jesus talked with women, and Samaritans, and sometimes even Samaritan women. Jesus spent time with the lost, the least, and the left-out.

But Zacchaeus? Really Jesus?

I wonder whether sharing a table with Zacchaeus was difficult for some of Jesus’ closest friends. I wonder if this ragtag group made up of fishermen and laborers knew how to sit down with such a powerful, wealthy, and disliked figure. Would they know which fork to use first? I wonder whether they already had their minds made up, like the crowd, about people like Zacchaeus.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus words are a shock to the system. At Jesus table there is a seat for everyone. Everyone: Samaritans, Tax Collectors, Women, The Poor, Democrats, Republicans, Pro-Lifers, Pro-Choice folks, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, heck, there’s even room for Episcopalians. Jesus’ table has seats for LGBT people and the people Archbishop Desmond Tutu refers to as “So-called-Straight.” All sinners and saints are welcome at Jesus’ table.

This is hard. Jesus’ welcome is a challenge to us. We live in a world that is much better at division than inclusion. We are living through a season of bitter partisanship. Eight years ago, many of us hoped that our nation was coming together. At the election of President Obama, there was a sense that we could overcome what divides us. Today in the New York Times there is an editorial by Kaitlyn Greenidge about our divided nation. In it, the author uses a phrase that stuck in my mind. She said: “The naïveté has soured.” Has it? Were we naïve? Has the hope soured? Is our country as irredeemably divided? Are we destined to stand in opposing camps, to always look across and see “those people.” Jesus would tell you, don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

The prophet Habbakuk is instructed by God to “write the vision: make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Give the people hope. Jesus hope is simple, profound and challenging: see one another. Embrace “those people.” Find your common humanity. Find God’s presence in the other.

I mentioned Archbishop Tutu. Many of you know the history of the man who is probably our denomination’s most famous member. Bishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid in South Africa, the racist legal framework of separation between black, white, and colored people in South Africa. For decades Bishop Tutu advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And in 1990 Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of the Archbishop.

It came as a surprise for Mandela when Tutu refused to join his political party, the African National Congress. But Tutu felt that he could not, as a church official, publicly identify with any party, even Mandela’s. Talk about refusing partisanship in what seems like a black and white case.

But the decision served Desmond and the nation well. His independence gave him credibility when the government later tasked him with leading the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had the power to grant amnesty to those who confessed to their crimes during apartheid and the protest movement.

For Bishop Tutu, his conviction came from his faith, came from Jesus. Tutu regularly preaches that for God, there are no outsiders. There is a seat for everyone. There is even a seat for the person who used their power to persecute their neighbor. Jesus’ table is scandalously open.

At Holy Communion we spent most of last year discerning the three values that define our church: welcome, diversity, and community. There’s no mistake that Welcome is the first value. When we asked people, one on one over coffee, in gatherings in members’ homes, at picnics in the park, when we asked: “Why did you stay at Holy Communion. The most frequently mentioned word was “welcome.”

That value goes back to the very beginning for Holy Communion. Those pews you are sitting in have an important history. They are some of the first “free pews” West of the Mississippi. In 1869, when Holy Communion was founded, the most common way of raising the money needed to run a church was to rent the pews. Holy Communion’s first chapel was financed this way. But when the original church was built in 1877 the vestry, at the urging of the first rector Dr. Robert (whose portrait hangs in our lounge), declared that the pews would be free.

When pews were rented, they were a status symbol. You can still visit churches back on the East Coast with fancy box pews. Your position in the church indicated your social status, and your wealth. The most expensive pews were right up front (something that might shock many Episcopalians today, who generally like to have a one or two pew “buffer zone” between the people and the preacher.

But the pews you are sitting in, they were free. Which is why we are in the midst of stewardship season. We ask everyone to make a financial pledge to support Holy Communion because Dr. Robert and your first vestry decided to take a gamble. They thought there should be a seat in church for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Dr. Robert’s gamble paid off. The congregation was incredibly generous in its support of the church. And today, you’ve got a chance to prove Dr. Robert right again. There are pledge cards in your free pews.

These free pews are an historic sign of welcome. And these days, some of them are a little creaky. In the next months you’ll see that we’re going to make some minor adjustments to some of the pews at the back of the church. We’re going to remove a row and a half on each side to make a little more room around the baptismal font. We’re also going to put a few chairs in the back, nice chairs that will match the pews. We want parents to be able to move chairs around a little, so that they can have a place to sit while their child plays. Today this congregation hopes that whether you find yourself in a historic pew, or a new chair, you will feel the welcome of Jesus in this place.

Jesus’ welcome comes as a comfort, and Jesus’ welcome also challenges us, like it challenged his disciples. Jesus welcomes us not to simply sit in a serene quiet church. Jesus doesn’t invite us to simply be nice to one another. Jesus’ welcome is to join around a table. Jesus invites us to engage one another across our differences. Jesus wants us to discover, in those people we find hardest to love, the image and likeness of God.

Zacchaeus showed the disciples. Jesus’ bet on Zacchaeus pays off. The generosity the rich man shows is incredible. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.”

I’ve shared this quote with you before at Holy Communion. My rector in Washington DC, The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, used to say: “Money is a powerful tool. If you can give away your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away any of your money, it has power over you.” I hope you value the ministry of this church enough to support us financially, but whether or not you choose to give here, I encourage you practice generosity. Generosity can change your perspective on money. I find that to be true regardless of wealth. There are people with very little who are very generous. There are rich people who have given all of their power to their wealth and feel trapped.

I think it is fair to say that Zacchaeus surprised Jesus’ followers, and he surprised the crowd. They had written him off. They thought they knew all about people like Zacchaeus. Jesus invited them to see more. In welcoming Zacchaeus, he opened the floodgates of the man’s generosity, and just as for the blind who were given sight, and the lepers who were healed, you get a sense at the end of this story that Jesus’ welcome has set Zacchaeus free.

This value of welcome that we share together, this value taught to us by Jesus, it’s dangerous. Jesus’ welcome means that you might sit in the same pew with someone who doesn’t share your social status. You might share a seat at the table with someone from a different political party or sexual orientation. Getting involved in this church might find you sharing a table down in El Salvador with people who are fleeing violence. At Holy Communion you are likely to sit with someone of a different race, ethnicity, or nationality.

Getting involved at Holy Communion might mean discovering that you are friends with people you never would have imagined getting to know. People you never expected may even help you to encounter God. When this happens, know that you are in the company of those who came before you in this church. And you are in the company of those first followers of Jesus, who raised their eyebrows when he said:

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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