A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.
There is a place in my neighborhood that is a microcosm of my neighborhood. As the noontime hour approaches, you can see every demographic: there are police officers in uniform, fire fighters in Blue BFD T-shirts, DCR lifeguards from Malibu Beach, grandchildren dressed in Vineyard Vines pants (pegged at the ankle) visiting their grandparents, National Grid workers in safety vests, lawyers in business suits, moms with strollers, politicians and fast-food clerks. It is there where every ethnicity and lifestyle of Dorchester is represented, and men and women of every age are present. Where is this perfect melting pot that includes everyone, from Boston Brahmin to the denizen of the triple-deckers? As a pastor, I would like to say that I am talking about the church, but, alas, I am not. The place that I am talking about is the deli counter at Lamberts. At lunchtime, the line for sandwiches includes everyone that calls Dorchester home.
Ah, Lamberts, where you can get the finest sandwich eight bucks can buy. All you have to do is hand the meat slicer your choice of roll and a list (either verbally or in writing) of ingredients, and a few minutes later, you are handed a piece of heaven wrapped in butcher paper. But it is in that long line leading to the counter that you can brush shoulders with literally anyone and everyone. As I wait for my turn, I wonder if this is what heaven will be like, complete with the distinct sound of dropped ‘r’s and the obligatory ‘wicked’.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Colossians 3:11 (NIV)
The original design for what we call the local church, according to the apostle Paul, was that it included everyone. No one was to be excluded based on religious, cultural, national, economic or gender (cf. Gal. 3:28). In practice, the local gatherings of the family of God routinely miss the mark. Why can’t the people of God be like the line at Lamberts? Why isn’t the make-up of the ‘bride of Christ’ the same as those waiting for sandwiches? Why isn’t the church as diverse as those frequenting the local deli?
I suppose the answer to all these questions is simple: reputation. Lamberts has the long line for their offerings because they are known, largely through word of mouth, as a provider of excellent lunches for everyone. What is the reputation of the church? Justified or not, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted as saying, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” In the fifty-eight years since those words were uttered, the church has taken great strides, but there is more to be done so that the community surrounding our houses of worship verify that the local church has changed. I hope that one day soon the same crowd at Lamberts is present at Calvary. All we can do is spread the word, with genuine sincerity, that all are welcome to worship the Lord.