One of my favorite poets is the late William Stafford. I love his poetry and I also deeply admire the moral courage that he spoke with his life. He chose some very costly and unpopular paths because he believed they were morally right.
Some of those decisions meant that he was never really able to go home again. That sense of being exiled from one’s own roots because of one’s convictions shapes many of his poems. I want to share with you one of his poems called “Serving with Gideon.” It comes from his life growing up in the years before World War Two.
Now I remember: in our town the druggist prescribed Coca-Cola mostly, in tapered glasses to us, and to the elevator man in a paper cup, so he could drink it elsewhere because he was black.
And now I remember The Legion -- gambling in the back room, and no women, but girls, old boys who ran the town. They were generous, to their sons or the sons of friends. And of course I was almost one.
I remember winter light closing its great blue fist slowly eastward along the street, and the dark then, deep as war, arched over a radio show called the thirties in the great old U.S.A.
Look down, stars -- I was almost one of the boys. My mother was folding her handkerchief; the library seethed and sparked; right and wrong arced; and carefully I walked with my cup toward the elevator man.
I want to return to that poem in a minute, but first I want you to try to imagine with me what it would be like to walk back in time into a landscape that you’ve only ever heard stories about from your grandparents, who heard them from their grandparents. That’s exactly what happened six years ago to members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
Between 2011 and 2014 two aging, obsolete hydroelectric dams were deconstructed and removed on the Elwha River. For 100 years the sacred site of the Elwha people’s creation story was buried under water and inaccessible. No one alive had ever seen it. For 100 years those dams kept vital sediment from reaching the lower river valley. Salmon were prevented from going up the river and bringing back nutrients from the ocean. The entire ecosystem along the river changed as native plants and animals disappeared.
The stories the Elwha people handed down from the time before the dams sounded almost too incredible to be true. They talked about the river being so thick with fish that one could walk across it on their backs. Scientists estimate that before the dams choked off the river, close to half a million fish used to return to the river each year. By the 1980s that number was down to less than 3000.
All the Elwha tribe wanted was to have their river back and that’s what they worked for, decade after decade.
It was thought that it could take 100 years or more for the river and its surrounding forests to return to anything resembling the conditions that existed before those dams were constructed. Some experts were skeptical it could ever be restored. They argued that the damage was beyond repair. They were all wrong.
The Elwha River has surprised everyone. It didn’t take 50 or 100 years for dramatic changes to become visible. It took about three years. The fish have returned and so have the animals who feed on them and the predators that feed on them and then trample the soil so the native plants can thrive. What ‘s emerging is a landscape like the one the Elwha people knew for centuries before the dam. The natural balance of things is returning so quickly that it’s been described as a phoenix rising from the ashes and it has generated a great deal of optimism. One person who has been studying its growing fish population said, “In my lifetime I don’t think I’ve ever had more hope for the future than I do now.”
The Elwha people were right all along. It turns out the river could do its life-giving work. It just needed to be set free.
That’s the powerful image painted in these famous poetic words offered by the prophet Amos in our reading today: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Amos tells us If we really want to be involved with what is close to the heart of God, our lives need to be about unleashing justice, fairness and equity in this world. He describes justice as a mighty, moving river. Justice is the direction in which God’s universe flows. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And the way that we let justice roll down like waters is by removing the obstacles that block its way.
I’ve discovered that it’s easy to tell everyone else how to do justice. The far greater challenge is taking a hard and holy look at where we ourselves are part of whatever needs to get out its way. That’s what Stafford was talking about in that poem when he said “the library seethed and sparked; right and wrong arced” and he had to make a choice in which direction he wanted to walk.
When it comes to letting justice roll down like a river, very often the things that most block the way aren’t overtly evil or malicious. They’re just part of how things have always been done and they’re so easy to fit into. The powerful gravitational pull of tradition and convenience often helps perpetuate injustice.
Those two large dams on the Elwha River were dismantled at the rate of about a foot and a half a day. It really only took a couple of years to do the actual deconstruction and set the river free but the project itself took 20 years from the time it was approved because people fought against it. They didn’t oppose the deconstruction because the dams were needed. The power grids of the surrounding communities no longer depended on them for electricity. It was because they had been there for so long that they had become part of the landscape of local culture and history. For everyone in living memory they had just always been there. If something’s in place long enough, it’s easy to assume it belongs there.
Stafford says, “I was almost one of the boys.” He’s talking about an established system where he didn’t have to do anything to be included. He was born included, but it was also an unfair system where some people were born excluded. So he had to make a careful, intentional and ultimately costly choice with his life to walk toward the person who is excluded. It was a choice he would make over and over again in his life. By turning in that direction, he was walking away from what was comfortable and easy, but he was moving toward what was just and right.
According to the prophet Amos, that’s the direction that will always move us toward God. As followers of Jesus that’s the path we are called to follow because that was the path he followed. Jesus always seemed to turn toward the excluded. My sisters and brothers, Jesus moved and is always moving toward justice. That’s the direction in which the river of God’s justice moves and it’s water is life-giving and restorative.
Sometimes the things that block its way can seem so large and entrenched. We have so many big issues of justice and injustice that we are facing right now in our world. It’s easy to look at them in the abstract and feel discouraged because they feel so vast and insurmountable.
But here’s the thing you need to know about setting rivers free—the way you remove any dam is the same way it was constructed: one block at a time; one small obstacle at a time, one conscious choice at a time, one real life at a time.
Or as William Stafford put in one of his other poems: “Here’s how to count the people ready to do right. One. One. One.”
Here’s my good news about unleashing justice: the choices of individuals can build on each other. When someone has the courage to choose justice over convenience it often inspires others to do the same and before you know it, dams come down and there’s a river valley turning green again and filling up with life.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”