The Elements of Community
Readings: Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Jews who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence. Now Swedenborg focused mostly on his spiritual and mystical experience, and didn’t always have much to say about human sociology but, we can extrapolate. For, that which drives spirit also drives the world, because spirit flows into and animates the world. If community is integral to heaven, and is integral to the relationship between heaven and earth, then earthly community is probably pretty important as well. From our reading again: “No one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others.”
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is necessary, integral, fundamental, to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.
We learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We know from science that community is important. I think we know from our own personal intuition that community is important. So Here are some things that I am noticing about community today, prompted by the Zaccheaus story. Community has some essential elements, among them: the act of noticing, invitation, engagement, vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus had something he was doing, he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then there is the Invitation. Jesus took a risk. He noticed Zacchaeus, but he also acted further. He opened up a space for interaction. Zacchaeus could have said no thank you, or another time my house is not ready, or a number of other excuses. but instead, an invitation was given, and it opened a space, without which nothing would have happened. Our reading points out that it is through community with heaven that we are moved to will what is good and think what is true. Our movement though and in life, happens within the matrix of community, happens because of the space created by community.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. And we see God’s invitation and engagement for us in our Isaiah reading for today: even after the Lord complains of meaningless ritual and indicts the Israelites for their lack of attention to the responsibilities of community, God says: Come now, let us settle the matter. Other translations say, Come, let us argue it out. Let us sit together and come to a resolution, an understanding. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us.
Likewise, when people sit at a table together, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. Good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, recognizing that they belong to each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: vulnerability and forgiveness.
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be vulnerable. To be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Vulnerability works wonders in many ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also an integral practice in creating a space where we can change. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
We must not take advantage of community, however. Community can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. Some, in this country, who would rightly have us recognize, for example, white privilege or economic inequality would argue that this is what American society has been for many years now…a place where we have forgotten how to be wrong, a place where we have forgotten about the necessity of repentance, a place where we cannot bear to imagine thriving for all because it threatens the few. And the marginalized are understandably tired, tired of educating the majority about the reality of their lives, tired of patiently waiting for us to repent for systems that keep them oppressed generation after generation. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can; Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards particular people or groups of people, or whether that means allowing community into our own life in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because if that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! 16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless he lives in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if he is not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in his own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless he has in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with him, and to the world of spirits, and even to hell through the spirits residing with him.
 For everyone during his lifetime is dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although he is not conscious of doing so. And if he is not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which he lives, he cannot go on living one moment longer. It is like the parts of the human body. Any part of it which is not joined to the rest by means of fibres and vessels, and so by means of various functions, is not part of the body. It is instantly removed and expelled as that which has no life.
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