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Come Down, Zacchaeus!

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 14

Text: Luke 19: 1-10



 “Dr. King was in a jovial mood when he stepped onto the balcony outside of room, 306. Leaning over the railing, he asked musician Ben Branch to play his favorite hymn, Precious Lord, at that evening’s mass meeting. “Play it real pretty,” he added. A moment later, the fatal shot rang out. In a flash, a single bullet fired from the boarding house across Mulberry Street struck Dr. King in the neck. The preacher collapsed instantly and lay motionless. Rev. Abernathy rushed to King’s side, while Rev. Kyles retrieved a bedspread from the room to lay over him.”

 Will you pray with me please. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The words I shared before the prayer are inscribed on a sign that I read just after peering through a glass wall at room 306 and moments before standing at that very balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. That balcony and room are now part of the National Civil Rights Museum which is built on the site of the motel. It was the first stop on our youth group Civil Rights tour of the South last February. This coming April 4th will mark the 50th Anniversary of King’s assassination.

Given this week’s news, it is almost surreal to find ourselves at MLK weekend. King’s words will no doubt be used as the world continues to decry Trump’s recent round of racist and reprehensible remarks let alone his abhorrent ideas about immigration. Most years, I’m only mildly frustrated when the same speeches and one-liners are brought out at Mayor’s breakfasts, volunteer days and any number of events and broadcasts that mark the occasion.

 Surely tomorrow, some will reach for hope and quote the almost prescient words he uttered at a mass meeting the night before he was killed. He said:

 “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop….. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

 Many will turn to his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and to the oft-quoted line about not judging people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Unfortunately, too often, this has been co-opted by those who would like to think that King was inviting us all to be color blind, which he most definitely was not! Besides, notice how much easier it is to quote that line than to quote other excerpts from the same speech, like when he says, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…”  In that speech, he was referring to the promissory note of freedom guaranteed by the Declaration and Constitution. He continued: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”…“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.”  Here King only begins to hint at the notion of monetary compensation as a mere metaphor.

 This year of all years, perhaps our nation needs to hear a more radical side of King, those writing and orations that have been conveniently overlooked and as the scholar Michael Eric Dyson has noted, “cast aside as rhetorical stepchildren” of his more familiar words. Indeed, as the movement progressed, King’s message grew more urgent, more fierce, and decidedly more concrete in making demands not only for basic civil rights and for reconciliation between blacks and whites but for honest recognition of and reparation for grave and historic economic disparities. All of this brings me to our passage today which I’m guessing was an inspiration for King, and I hope can be an inspiration for us.

 It’s the story of Zacchaeus, a rich man, a tax man no less, tucked up in his perch in the tree, holding himself above the fray. “Come down,” Jesus says. You see, as chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was entitled to an off-the-top cut of the all the money he collected for the Roman empire. His wealth was a direct result of his privilege and position. So Jesus invites him to come down from his perch and to humble himself, to take his place amidst the crowd that was grumbling against him. No longer able to keep his distance from those who did not enjoy his privilege, and standing face to face with Jesus, something in him shifts. In the face of that piercing love, of that divine embodiment of compassion for him and for all, he realizes in the core of his being that he’s got more than enough to get by, that in truth he’s no more deserving of his wealth than anyone else. He didn’t make the rules. He realizes that he just happens to be on winning side of them. Right there and then, Zacchaeus experiences a moment of remarkable generosity, of surrender and of relinquishment. Did you hear it?  “Half of my possessions,” he says!  Maybe Zacchaeus remembers who he really is, not just a taxman, but a person of faith who has roots in a Jewish tradition and the ethics of love for one’s neighbor. Besides, Zacchaeus would have learned in his first century synagogue that the ancient Jewish texts set forth a common law that required people to repay 4 times those who he or his family had defrauded. Can we imagine if that law were on the books today? Just follow the action of this passage -- first humility and a coming down from his perch, then unflinching honesty, and coming to Jesus and to his neighbors, and finally relinquishment, that giving up and giving over of what he had to those who were by comparison disadvantaged and less privileged. What’s more, he gets to welcome Jesus as a house guest for the night! Bonus!

Though King ended his life looking over that balcony outside of room 306, his message to our country, especially later in the movement, seems to be one that said “Come down, Zacchaeus!” From his perch at the Lorraine, King could already see the Promised Land but he knew that the only folks that had tasted of its milk and honey were those who were born into privilege. King had already been down with garbage workers, down with the elderly sharecroppers, down with the students and workers fighting for their rights and their lives and livelihoods. He knew that divine love of Jesus, as if face to face! He knew his very life was being demanded of him and he was ready to surrender it. And he knew that the only way to the Promised Land, was together, even if he wasn’t going to make it there himself.

 I’d now like to share some extended excerpts of the lesser known King in which he pulls no punches in laying out the blatantly racist economic policies that cemented wealth disparities along racial lines after the Civil War and beyond. See if you can hear in them a call to us all to humility, to soul-searching honesty about our privilege, and perhaps even to relinquishment!

 Here, in a recorded conversation a few weeks before he was murdered, he lamented the Reconstruction era backsliding on our nation’s 1865 promises of 40 acres and a mule to former slaves:

At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. (1)

 Circling back to his line from his I Have a Dream speech, though this time it’s no metaphor, he says,  “Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

 In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, King said the following…

 During World War II, our fighting men were deprived of certain advantages and opportunities. To make up for this, they were given a package of veterans’ rights, significantly called a “Bill of Rights.” The major features of this GI Bill of Rights included subsidies for trade school or college education, with living expenses provided during the period of study. Veterans were given special concessions enabling them to buy homes without cash, with lower interest rates and easier repayment terms. They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses, using the government as an endorser of any losses.

 He goes on with this list of GI benefits, which notably were not offered to African-American servicemen, a mind-blowing injustice that has never been rectified. King continues,

In this way, the nation was compensating the veteran for his time lost in school or in his career or in business. Such compensatory treatment was approved by the majority of Americans. Certainly the Negro has been deprived. Few people considered the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all these years, robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill.

 Here he’s saying no amount of money can ever repay the wounds of slavery or its denial! True that!

 “Yet,” he continues, “a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.

 I am proposing, therefore, that, just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war Veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.

 What’s more, King brilliantly include poor whites here, out of moral conviction and out of his political savvy since he knew there would be conservative backlash that would pit the white poor against the black poor. Check out how he does it:

 While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill. The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery. Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth.

 Have you ever thought of that in the context of slavery? I hadn’t - the way the free labor of slavery drove down wages for all working people and is a legacy that we still wrestle with today. One more quote..

It was free only to bargain from the depressed base imposed by slavery upon the whole labor market. Nor did this derivative bondage end when formal slavery gave way to the de facto slavery of discrimination. To this day the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education. In one sense it is more evil for them, because it has confused so many by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.

Can you imagine if this kind of generosity of spirit and unifying rhetoric of both racial and economic justice for all were more part of our last election, where we might be today. Instead we are left with “who won the black vote” or “who carried the white working class” and Trump who, seemingly, insidiously continues to calculate and try to use such malevolent division to his benefit!

We can graft King’s analysis onto what we are seeing today. Consider especially that without such compensatory treatment or reparations for persons of color, how many of us are still up in that perch of privilege! We didn’t create slavery, nor the pursuant racial and economic disparities, but most of us are living pretty high on the perch because of them. Can we hear Jesus’ words, telling us it’s time to “Come Down!”? Can we draw nearer to Jesus— and with him, to the people from Africa and Haiti and those other utterly beloved and blessed countries who have been demeaned, degraded and defrauded in each generation? Too often we only go so far as to judge with glowing admiration the incredibly enduring and resilient character of persons of color, but whether we know it or not, it’s still from our perch. When will we be ready to start talking about what we are willing to relinquish in terms of our wealth and privilege?

State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a first-generation Haitian-American, called President Trump’s vulgar slur to Haiti and other countries on Thursday “an affront to decency and to history,” adding that the president “represents the last gasp of a racist worldview.”  We can hope! Even better, we can set about to the do the work of remembering what has for too long been denied, understanding not only King’s dreams and aspirations but learning about the nightmares he described too. Have we yet taken stock of the nightmare and the affront to a vision of God’s kingdom it is for all of us to be living in a city where, as the Globe reported recently, the average net worth of white families is $247,000 and the average net worth of black families $8!?

Precious Lord, take our hands, please! Make us come down from our perches! Help us to find ways that are authentic and true to our stories to be like Zacchaeus and start sharing the wealth!

As many of you know, I will soon be taking a study leave to wrestle with some of these issues of remembrance and reparations at First Church. In the next two weeks, at 10 am, I’ll be leading two 10 o’Clock Hour conversations to share how I’m feeling called to think about this work and to invite us all to consider how we might be called collectively to engage our history and our historical perch at First Church. There are 39 enslaved persons on our membership rolls between the years the 1698 and 1783. At least 39 Slaveholders. What will happen if we follow those stories, follow that wealth of the slaveholders that led some to build houses and accumulate assets for generations right here in this so called Promised Land of Cambridge, Massachusetts? What will happen if we listen not only to dreams but to the nightmares as well? What will happen if we come down? By God’s grace, and if we want to truly honor King’s legacy, may it be a Zacchaeus like story of humility, honest reckoning, and relinquishment until the truth sets all free. Amen.


1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NNvzVCVhIM

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