There’s a Halloween story that comes from the early 16th Century. The year was 1517. It was on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the day before the feast of All Saints’ Day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses for debate in his course on the Epistle to the Romans.
Luther, a professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg and an Augustinian monk, was a tortured soul. He was overwhelmed with guilt for even the most minor of infractions. He would daily go to confession and then subject himself to extensive religious exercises and physical torture in order to be exorcised of his shame. Even then, he never felt clean, never righteous or worthy of the love of God.
In preparation for teaching a class on the Epistle to the Romans, however, Luther, read in his Bible, Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to his grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” It was a revelation. Instead of having to earn God’s love by living a perfect life, Luther came to see that we are saved by grace. Salvation is a gift, not a reward.
As he looked around the church of his day, he saw a religion, founded on grace, that had been turned into one filled with requirements (what he called “works of the law”) requirements to be met before one could stand before or even be loved by God.
Although many factors and forces led to the Protestant Reformation, history points to that October 31st in 1517, as the date that it all began. And that’s why we observe today as Reformation Sunday. It is observed in many places on the last Sunday of October. I was pleased to hear that Pope Francis will soon be travelling to Sweden to join in a celebration of worldwide Lutheranism. He is calling upon Roman Catholics to re-evaluate the Reformation.
I recently came across a piece written by Kyle Childress, a Texas pastor who has just co-authored a book with Rod Kennedy, former pastor of First Baptist Church here in Dayton. Childress shared the following story that seems so appropriate for the Halloween season.
During a haircut my barber asked me, “Do you believe that zombies are real?” I said, “What?” not sure if I had heard her correctly. She asked again, “Do you believe that zombies are real?” Realizing that it was a serious question, I said, “No. Zombies are in movies, books, TV shows, and games. But they’re not real.”
She said, “My preacher says that zombies are real. He preaches that the devil reinvigorates dead bodies and that’s where zombies come from.”
Trying to avoid public criticism of another preacher I said, “Where in the Bible does he get this?”
She shot back, “Well, I don’t know where he gets it. All I know is that he says we’d better get our guns ready because zombies are real.”
“Where do you go to church?” I asked.
“I go to the Cowboy Church outside the loop. You know, you can see the rodeo arena out back.”
“How many people attend on Sunday mornings to hear that zombies are real?
She said, “Oh, we usually have somewhere around 400 on Sunday morning, with most staying around Sunday afternoon for pot-luck dinner. We have roping, barrel-racing, and other rodeo events after that.”
I didn’t know whether to cry, cuss, or pray for mercy. Every Sunday I preach well-prepared, biblical sermons to a congregation of 80-100 people, while across town 400 people dress up as cowboys and pack a church to hear that zombies are real and go rodeo afterwards.
Someone asked me the other day if I thought I was depressed; I thought about this barbershop conversation. I responded that the question is not whether I’m depressed. The question is why am I not depressed?
Are zombies real? Well, no. I’m with Kyle Childress if you’re thinking about the fictional beings of horror movies, television, and popular paperback fiction.
But there are Walking Dead . . . not those who have physically died but people who’ve suffered a moral death, a death to compassion, a death to their own humanity. Zacchaeus was one of those walking dead. He was a tax collector.
In the first century Roman Empire, the Roman occupiers appointed local, indigenous people to collect their taxes. Zacchaeus would collect the percentage that the empire insisted was due to Caesar, and then he would add onto the tax bill an additional amount to support himself. This was all enforced by the Roman legions and bureaucracy. Failure to pay could result in confiscation of one’s property, one’s harvest and flocks and herds. Punishment could include arrest, even death—depending upon the whim of the particular enforcers. This was all done without due process—only Roman citizens had a right to a trial. And residents of Palestine were not Roman citizens.
Needless to say, tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews as, at best, collaborators with the hated Romans and, at worst, out and out thieves and traitors. Zacchaeus was one of the latter.
He was a “chief tax collector” – a very wealthy man. And in the eyes of his countrymen, he was an “egregious” sinner, the Walking Dead: dead to compassion, dead to the suffering of his victims, dead to a moral life.
Jesus was walking through Jericho one day causing a stir. Curious about who this Jesus was, Zacchaeus, short of stature, climbed a tree in order to see over the crowd. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, he called for him to come down, “. . . for I must stay at your house today.”
And the soul of Zacchaeus was raised from the dead! Having encountered the One in whom the Love of God was so apparent, who did not despise or condemn him, Zacchaeus opened the eyes of his heart to see the poor and the victims of his greed, to make restitution. Jesus welcomed him into his embrace with a reminder that he, too, was a child of Abraham. Jesus also gave a gentle reminder to his critics who were upset that he would have anything to do with the tax collector, “Remember that I came to seek out and to save the lost.” Grace . . . a free and unearned gift.
Are you a works of the law, earn your way into heaven, guilt-ridden Christian like Martin Luther? Do you beat yourself down with shame? Do you second-guess yourself as if you are flawed beyond repair? Do you require that others be held accountable for every misdeed or mistake? Then meet the Martin Luther on Halloween, 1517, for he’s now singing a new song about Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
Are you a Zombie? Walking dead in your own shoes . . . morally, compassionately, emotionally dead? Have you given up on abundant life as an impossible dream? Are you so jaded that you’re convinced that all is lost, everything is beyond repair, so just do the best you can for yourself? Then let me introduce you to Zacchaeus, and invite you to, in your walking deadness to climb a figurative sycamore tree, look over the crowd, and see Jesus. What’s the commotion? Why are people gathering around him? What’s the buzz?
Jesus says, “I want to come to your house tonight, to have dinner with you, to be with the lost, dead, unloved, empty. I, the one in whom the Living God is most clearly reflected, am here for you. I want you. I love you. Grace is my name.”
 Kyle Childress in Will Campbell, Preacher Man by Kyle Childress and Rodney Wallace Kennedy, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1916, p. 8