The Elements of Community
Readings: Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2 (see below)
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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 Judeans 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.
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is integral 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, as we have all learned personally over the last few years.
So, we learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We learn from science that community is important. We know from our own personal experience that community is important. What specifically do we learn about community from the Zaccheaus story? That community has some essential elements and benefits, among them: the actions of noticing and inviting, of engagement, and of vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing and the inviting. 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 was already he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus and then opened up a space for interaction. 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 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. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us. Likewise, when people gather in intentional community, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. When viewpoints differ, good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, working to see the good in each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean skillful 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 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 where we can be vulnerable, 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, our surroundings. 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.
Additionally, the gift of vulnerability works wonders in other ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also integral to creating the space where we can change if we need to. 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 and 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 needing each other’s support.
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.
Now, that doesn’t mean that community does not have its downsides. It 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. 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 and 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 others, 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 of that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
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 they live 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 they are not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in their 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 they have in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with them…
 For everyone during their lifetime are dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although they are not conscious of doing so. And if they are not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which they live, they cannot go on living one moment longer.
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