“Pokemon Go… and sin no more.” That was the quote on the sign of Eastside Christian Church, our sister church just up the road from us. Have you caught the poke-fever? Many have. Pokemon Go is the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. If you haven’t heard of it, it is an augmented reality mobile game created by Nintendo that places animated mythical creatures in the real world that you are to try and capture. It has truly taken America by storm in less than twenty days’ time since its release. Kids and adults alike are roaming the streets in search of these beings. I had some kids approach me at our home as I was out playing catch with my boys and they said, “Mister – there’s a Pokemon in your yard – can we capture it?” “Sure,” I said. “Can you capture that mole that’s tearing up our yard while you’re at it?” Nothing but blank stares. I’m losing my cool edge it seems.
The Washington Post reports that “Pokémon Go has already been downloaded more times than the dating app Tinder, and it is rapidly encroaching on Twitter, which has been around for a full 10 years. Nintendo’s stock soared nearly twenty-five percent Monday because of the game — its biggest gain in more than 30 years.” Call it nonsense or call it magical but you can’t ignore its presence. And for those of us working toward a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, we cannot deny its offering some levity in such difficult times. The news around the world seems to go from bad to worse. Amid the turmoil of terrorism, racism, and a tendency to isolate ourselves, this little app has people of all ages deciding to leave the loneliness of their homes and office buildings and hit the streets to capture Pidgeys and Eevees. Police officers are playing the game with protestors, neighbors who have lived next door to one another for years but don’t even know each other’s names, are now sharing tips on where to find the rarest beasts luring in the ‘hood. One U.S. veteran tweeted this: “I’m a vet with PTSD. The last three years, leaving my yard was a chore. Today I took my kid to the park and talked to 20 random strangers. Thank you Nintendo.”
Perhaps this craze speaks to a people longing for transcendence. Maybe it’s an appeal to a childhood fascination with fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough.” He went on to say, “This world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different but which is quite delightful. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass.”1 If nothing more, we can say there is something about Pokemon Go that has provoked millions to engage.
And today, we are wondering the same about the evolving Christian faith in the 21st century. But to consider this future movement, we venture back in time… not to a fairytale about fairies that dance on the grass but about a tax collector who climbs a tree. There is a great mixture of danger and excitement when it comes to the most famous tree-climbing story in Scripture. Zacchaeus was a “wee little man” so goes the old child’s Sunday School song. The song refers to his limited height but the culture would have used those words to describe his character. Even if they didn’t know Zach personally, that was the association with his professional practice. Tax collectors were not the prized heroes of society. The system was corrupt and we are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Essentially, he was a local entrepreneur who would have employed other tax collectors to collect all of the tolls, tariffs and taxes in Jericho. And here was the corrupt part – they could charge people whatever tax bill they wanted as long as the Roman overseers got paid their fee. Whatever was left over was conveniently pocketed. It’s not hard to imagine why they wouldn’t get high marks on Angie’s List.
Jesus is Jesus, however, and he sees people differently than most. He actually gravitated toward these sorts of people. Earlier in Luke’s account of the narrative of Jesus, the religious establishment scoffs at Jesus’ tendency to rub shoulders with the wrong folks. They mock him on several occasions for being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (5:27-32; 7:34; 15:1-2). Zaccheus, then, perhaps not having many friends or followers on Twitter was interested in this now public figure that seemed to have a liking for others like him. Thus the famous shimmying up the sycamore tree – a magnificent tree that legend still says is standing in Jericho. Zach wanted to see what he could see. The assumption is that Zaccheus did this on his own but it could certainly be argued that the crowd chased him up the tree too, which would make Jesus’ engagement with him all the more astonishing to the people gathered for the unofficial parade.
You heard the account read moments ago. I always wonder about the ‘between the lines’ parts of the story. Luke kind of skips a lot of that stuff. He says, “Jesus walks to Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see him pass by because he was short and then Jesus is at the tree and hollers at him to come down.” How did this really develop? We could certainly speculate. Was it like an NBA championship parade? Was Jesus sitting in the back of a convertible offering a queen’s wave to the crowds on both sides? Was he in a Shriner’s car tossing tootsie rolls to kids along the parade route? Or was it more happenstance, a few folks acknowledging those passing by every day, Jesus not-so-much power walking to Jerusalem but meandering through, noticing a man in a tree and wondering why he was there? Did Zacchaeus desperately want to see Jesus because they had been together before or was this more of the lure of seeing someone people are talking about – like how people in Owasso quickly share of the time they saw Garth Brooks at Wal-Mart.
Whatever the case, the literal come-to-Jesus meeting occurs at the base of this Sycamore tree. Jesus knew his name so there are all kinds of possibilities concerning their relationship. Either way, Jesus says, “Zach – what are you doing up the tree? Come on down and let’s go to your place.” What good fortune for Zacchaeus – probably didn’t endear him any more to the people. The people were probably disappointed in Jesus too. Jesus knew this would be the case. What follows is an assumed home visit, some transformative connection and a proclamation of Jesus that “Today, salvation has come to this house.” We sort of assume there is some light-bulb realization by Zacchaeus, some repentance for the wrong he’s done and the ways he chooses to work toward flippin’ the script on his life. But we don’t hear that from the text itself. It doesn’t say, “Jesus offered heaven to Zacchaeus if he would give away half of his income to the poor and pay back damages four-times what he crooked out of honest folks.” If we read it straight, Zacchaeus apologies at the base of the tree and sort of shares how he handles his business – “I help people when I can and if I cheat anyone I make it right.” There’s not an “If/then” dialogue – “If you do this, then you’ll get this,” from Jesus. The last statement of Jesus in this passage has often been used to suggest that saving “the lost” is about private and personal conversion – a heaven ticket punched for a party-of-one if you will. But this seems to be a much more comprehensive kind of salvation. Jesus says, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
This is a salvation that comes to the whole house and brings about a transformative healing of the whole person in the present – not just the future – and it is communal. Jesus reached to one person that nobody else would, affirmed his identity in their faith heritage, and inspired him to bring salvation – freedom — to others. In Zacchaeus’ transformation, the whole community benefits. Jesus did this time and time again. He came looking for people who were up a tree. The deeply religious folks tried to stay away from the unclean contingent of society but Jesus was drawn to them. He wasn’t offended by their actions or the cracks in their lives; he was provoked to engage them. He sought them out and looked for a way to restore them both physically and spiritually. Zacchaeus wasn’t an isolated encounter. Take the woman at the well (John 4). Multiple reasons for a Jewish Rabbi such as Jesus to avoid her. She’s a woman (strike one). Samaritan! (strike two – Jews thought Samaritans were the worst). She’s painted as sexually promiscuous (strike three!). Jesus engages her anyway and what happens? “Many Samaritans from her city came to believe because of her testimony.” Huh.
Luke 7 – Roman centurion: “his kind” represented everything that Jews detested about the Roman occupation and yet Jesus healed his servant and praised his faith. Mark 7 – the Syrian-Phoenician woman: Gentile but Jesus healed her daughter. Matt 8 – a man with leprosy: unclean and untouchable but Jesus engaged him and cured him. John 8 – Adulterous woman: caught in the very act so her accusers say. Jesus refused to judge her. Jesus didn’t seem to care how the staunchly religious viewed these people. He showed up anyway… and “sinners loved Jesus. They literally followed him everywhere. They pursued him from town to town. He spent days with them, meeting their friends, eating meals in their homes, accepting their gifts, and embracing their children. They were suspended in disbelief at encounters with someone who understood truth and beauty, healing and restoration, righteousness, justice, mercy, and grace – and he genuinely loved them. The self-righteous Pharisees were displeased. They didn’t understand why Jesus would associate with such immoral people. But Jesus didn’t just act differently: He thought differently. He saw people differently. He reminded them that he had come ‘to find and restore the lost.” 2
Who do you know who’s up a tree right now? It may be, but doesn’t have to be, someone whom you morally disagree with. It could be someone that you just don’t know but are afraid to understand. It’s easier to stay away from different. It may be someone who needs help in any number of ways but you really don’t feel like you have the time or resources to get involved. There’s got to be somebody, somebodies, some group of people that you might deem up a tree right now. What would it be like to invite them to come down? This movement of the next Christians – again – just a title not a condemnation that we are old-news Christians – just a term that a book employed to describe a movement that seems to be connecting with people who may see the church as the ones up a tree. They seem to be saying, “Don’t be afraid to climb down and be a real human with the rest of us.” We don’t have to be high and mighty. We don’t have to have all the answers. We certainly don’t have to be – and cannot be – perfect. And it’s awkward to examine ourselves and consider what spiritual growth we may need. But it seems this mold-breaking movement of restorer Christians is attempting (if even awkwardly and uncomfortably) to engage humanity in ways that Jesus seemed to do – if even criticized by religious establishments who are saying, “Who are these people who befriend tax collectors and sinners (and you can insert your own group of folks where the Pharisees named tax collectors)?” There is a lens of grace that opens this possibility – it resists the urge to condemn everything that doesn’t seem to fit our version of the Christian mold. There is a quest for commonality that is grounded in Jesus greater concern of engagement over condemnation. It is not easy but is a growing sentiment of being no longer comfortable with just being comfortable. It seems to be Jesus’ choice to be faithful over having a pristine reputation among the religious community. Many times, it may simply mean we show up to our daily lives and let restoration thinking flood our actions and responses as we encounter our deeply fragmented world.
Jamie Tworkowski was a twenty-something Hurley Surf Representative who was also a Christian. He admits to not having many of the answers to life’s toughest questions but thinks that following Jesus is about restoration. A friend-of-a-friend situation landed Jamie in front of a young woman named Renee who was an addict at the end of her rope on a certain path of destruction. While much occurred the plan finally came to her agreement to go to treatment but when this group of friends got her to treatment, the resource-strapped clinic wasn’t equipped to handle her claiming she was “too great a risk.” It would be five days before she could be admitted anywhere. In Jamie’s words, “For the next five days, she was ours to love. We became her hospital and the possibility of healing filled our living room with life. We would be her church, the body of Christ coming alive to meet her needs.” They were provoked to engage.3
Mike Foster was provoked to engage a plan to help those struggling with another taboo issue. Overwhelmed with America’s pornography problem, he decided to engage it instead of simply taking a posture of condemnation. He thought differently. He saw restoration possibilities. Mike recognized that the typical approach of creating content filters for online use was not working. In his estimation, the primary challenge in overcoming porn addiction was isolation, loneliness and shame. So his team created software called x3watch, which facilitates accountability between two people. When a user visits adult content sites, the software notifies his or her selected friend. This creates a conversation. Mike believed if people could talk about their addiction with someone they trust, it would go a long way toward healing and restoration.4
James “The Ice Creamcycle Dude” Karagiannis has sold ice cream treats for a buck a piece in inner city Buffalo, New York for the past nine years. People have told him not to go into those neighborhoods but he continues to be drawn in by the kids and families he encounters there. “Nothing is harder than seeing some kids who can’t afford to get a treat, especially when their buddy is getting one,” James said. “Sometimes I would give out free ones if a kid could answer a math or history question first.” But he couldn’t do that forever. He decided that he could help restore some broken bridges between communities in their city by starting a pay-it-forward concept where people could donate money to offer ice-cream to a child in need. In turn, James has the child write a thank you note to the donor. It may seem a small gesture, but it is a provoking effort to create restoration.5
Last week, Djuan Wash, inspired by the #blacklivesmatters movement, was organizing a protest in the city of Wichita, Kansas. Instead, they agreed to co-host a “first steps” BBQ with the Wichita Police Department. The community got together and had open and honest discussion between its citizens and law enforcement. Hard questions were asked and Police Chief Ramsay facilitated with vulnerability a conversation of listening to one another with open hearts and minds. One person said, “We are on the road to real, life giving solutions. We are breaking down barriers. We downed over 2,000 hamburgers and hot dogs, built relationships, laughed, cried, and danced. This is what humanity was designed to do. Work together, love each other and live in community.”6
I understand that our lives are deeply complicated. The issues we face are deeply complicated. The realities and agendas of all people are very different and these present great challenges. I understand that we often find ourselves wondering how we can navigate the next hour of our own lives let alone give away ice cream in under-resourced neighborhoods or create software to support those recovering from addiction. I don’t have all of the answers. I have my own fears and concerns and struggles with the awkwardness of change and discomfort. I have not, and maybe won’t get around to downloading the Pokemon Go app. But of this I am convinced: Jesus faced these same human barriers that we have and took a risk on engaging it all anyway. Surely it begins with a prayer. Maybe it grows into an invitation to another to climb down the tree they are in. Maybe it finds us climbing down out of the trees we are in too.
1 Pokemon info, The Washington Post report, and Chesterton quotes come from this article: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2016/07/13/pokemon-go-in-a-fractured-and-flattened-world/
2 The biblical examples and quoted paragraph come from pg. 78 of The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons.
3 The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. Gabe Lyons. Doubleday. New York. 2010. Pg. 71-73
4 Same resource. Pg.83-84
5 abcnews.go.com/US/city-kids-free-ice-cream-pay-forward-campaign/story?id=40664124 Several stories on the internet that describe this effort. This article was one that helped shape this paragraph.
6 A friend’s Facebook post helped craft this story. One account of the event can be witnessed here: kwch.com/content/news/WPD-community-activists-schedule-First-Steps-Barbecue-to-help-unite-community-386827121.html