Break Down the Dams! (And let justice roll on like a [free-flowing] river)

Oct 30, 2022   •   Luke 19: 1-10

Loving God, pour out your grace upon us all so that we, being washed in that mighty stream of love, may be strengthened to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Amen.

Have you ever felt held back, rejected, or that you don’t belong? I got the sense that Zacchaeus felt that way when he heard the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s invitation. As we just heard from Luke, “All who saw it began to grumble. He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Put yourself in the place of Zacchaeus. Can you imagine stirring up enough courage in your heart to go to see Jesus, this man you’ve heard so much about when you are effectively a pariah to society? And you’re not just on the margins of society, but a true outcast? Peeking your head up, trying to see over others’ shoulders. Jumping up and down to try and get a glimpse, but still not being able to see. Then, resolving not to lose your chance, deciding to climb a tree. And then, not only experiencing the twist of getting to see Jesus but actually getting noticed by him and asked to host a meal. Finally, after experiencing this brief moment of joy, being cut back down to size by the crowd all around you, called out for being a sinner.

I can relate to Zacchaeus. I got married to my husband in 2008 during that little window when the floodgates to marriage equity were opened in California. I was curious about this institution that LGBT people historically hadn’t been allowed to enter into. During this second summer of love, I recall a stream of happy couples on the news almost every day. And I, too, experienced joy. Yes, the joy of being newly wed, but also the joy that comes with acceptance. Being let in, at last, an insider to the institution of marriage. And then, in November of that same year, that joy was taken away. California voted for prop 8 to reserve marriage for one man and one woman. My LGBTQIA+ siblings and I had been told by the people of the state, “you don’t belong here.”

When I think of where I identify in the biblical story, it’s easy for me to align with Zacchaeus. Maybe that’s where you see yourself also, based on your past life experiences. It’s a hopeful position to want to be the person let in, the person welcomed home. I’m not so sure, however, that we should be so ready to succumb to our easy inclinations and call it a day. Where would our own accountability be in that? Where would our efforts be to take up our cross daily? Not the cross, but our cross? Is it possible, then, that you and I play a different part?

We are told that Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector but the chief tax collector in Jericho. Now Jericho, at the time, was an important customs center because of how long it had been an established settlement and because of its proximity to the Jordan River on the east and Jerusalem to its west. In order to arrange this coveted post, Zacchaeus would have needed to negotiate and secure a contract with the Romans. All of his neighbors would have despised him for this, and that probably doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how they would have felt toward him. This man who sought to work with the group that made the lives of their families, friends, and community a living hell; this man who aligned with the group that brutally put to death so many; this man who put his own pocketbook ahead of his own people; he—Zacchaeus—colluded with the Roman oppressors. I imagine that’s why no one in the crowd was willing to move for him. But the crowd not only blocked him physically so he couldn’t see, forcing him to climb a tree (which on second thought, seems like a silly thing to do for such a high-ranking official), but they attempted to block him from Jesus in a different way, this time with their grumbling. Now, doesn’t the crowd’s reaction to this scene seem more justified? Who was this sinner to get to show Jesus hospitality when there were so many better choices around? And, what was Jesus thinking by opening an invitation of relationship to this man?

And yet, Jesus, mind you, who is Jewish like the rest of the crowd, notices Zacchaeus; asks for his hospitality, and in return is joyfully welcomed. In response to the grumbling of the crowd, Zacchaeus makes an honest admission of responsibility for his past corrupt business dealings; he resolves to make it right, to enact justice for the benefit of those whom he wronged, and commits to generous sharing of his great wealth to meet the needs of the poor. Jesus, not deterred by the crowd’s grumbling, sees Zacchaeus for who he is and declares him “a son of  Abraham;” as part of God’s family. This is the radical love of God at work in the world. The love that looks foolish to our world. The love that is counter-cultural to our society. This is both so joyful and so very hard to accept; but my sisters, my brothers, my siblings; this precisely is the good news for us all. God seeks us out! God seeks to be in relationship with us. God doesn’t limit grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Would you really want a God that limits their love? God’s ways are not our ways. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Jesus’ radical invitation and declaration of familial affiliation completely shattered the crowd’s expectations. His act of reconciliation was like a dam of division, previously entrenched deep and reinforced, broken open with a burst of living river water. That dam was removed by the immense power of God’s reconciling and restorative love on that day! God’s river of justice and righteousness was able to flow unimpeded. We now, however, just like the crowd then, are the ones that constantly build up dams, consciously or unconsciously, in the rivers of our interconnected lives, deciding who’s in and who’s out. Sure, a dam can protect a community or provide some sense of order, but it doesn’t only protect; it hurts too, usually on both sides of the division. In the case of real-life dams, fish are unable to migrate upstream or are frequently injured or killed while attempting to use fish ladders. Downriver biodiversity, ecosystems, and wetlands are all lost. Think about that. What does that translate to in our current world? Who is injured, who is killed, and who is left behind? What part of the beauty of God’s creation have we lost? When we limit who our neighbors are and our interactions and relationship with them, we do the very same thing.

Think of all the people who our lives are separate from, and not just at church, but in our broader society; unhoused persons, people with mental health issues, poor people, incarcerated people, the LGBTQIA+ community-particularly our trans sibling, liberals to conservatives, and conservatives to liberals, and on and on. We see this division and the pain it causes most clearly in racism and exclusionary policies, but we also see this when we refuse to even be in dialogue with someone who holds a view different from our own or lives a life of different circumstances from us. Particularly as seekers, as people of faith, the danger of supporting these dams, these divisions, is creating for ourselves a finite God of our own image and our own making. By deciding who is in and who is out; who is acceptable and who is not. And often times when we exclude others, we also end up excluding ourselves from God’s grace, love, and mercy.

There’s a hymn in the 1982 hymnal that expresses this more poetically than I can; it’s hymn 469. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness  in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.” It goes on to say, “For the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we  make this love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.”

Indeed, God’s ways are not our ways. I don’t know about you, but I am constantly in awe of God’s inclusion and love when we simply get out of the way. But don’t confuse this with being passive. Whether you see yourself as Jesus, Zacchaeus, or the crowd in this gospel lesson, we are all responsible for breaking down the dams around us. To quote Dr. Cornel West,  Professor of Philosophy at Union Theological Seminary & Professor Emeritus at Princeton, 

“Justice is what love looks like in public.” After all, what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?

I’ve just begun to do that work here in DC by being involved in the Washington Interfaith Network. A few Saturdays ago, I went to an action that addressed the intersection of climate justice, racial justice, children’s health, and housing. It was an eye-opening experience, underscoring the importance of standing together. Also, as I’ve begun to do relational meetings, I’ve learned that many of you have a calling that’s close to your heart, like dignity in housing for all, for example, but grounded in many different layers, like caring about education for children and racial justice and care for the incarcerated; and so, I’ve learned that social justice work isn’t one-sided; there are usually many interrelated parts to the whole. So, I encourage you to explore where your heart may be called and to speak with me or one of the St. Mark’s leaders of WIN (please raise your hand) to see how you can get involved. You might be surprised where you land.

I’ll end with this from Amos, “but let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amen.