On Wednesday, April 24th I was invited to be the preacher for United Theological Seminary's Spring Convocation. The theme of this year's convocation was“THE CHURCH'S PUBLIC WITNESS”. It sought to explore the role of faith communities and their calling to do justice. It was an honor and a challenge to be asked to lead the opening worship for this event. As I pondered what I might say, I kept coming back to you, the people of Peace Church. Throughout the years and in these days of transition, I give thanks for your witness and your love for this community and our world. I offer this sermon in gratitude to the people mentioned in it and to all of you, for letting me hear some of your stories in the midst of the faith story we all share.
Finding Our Place Esther 4:13-16 and Luke 4:16-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit returns to Galilee. That’s what Luke says happened right after the baptism and the temptation. The Spirit could have sent him anywhere but no, she sends him home. I think he must have been nervous when he walked into his small home town and into the synagogue he grew up in on the Sabbath.
You have to be careful what you say when you go home. They know you there, they remember you and the stuff you did or didn’t do. I’m a little nervous standing here, 27 years after my graduation. It’s a big deal to go home, to speak your truth there.
Jesus goes home where they know him, he’s Mary’s son after all, you remember him, a bit odd, but you know he’s kind. His very first sermon preached on the spot is from the scroll that was handed him–Isaiah, but he finds his place in that scroll. What words will he read aloud? Ah yes, he finds the words that have captured his heart. He reads them aloud, but as one commentary has said, “He reads it in the key of Mary…Mary his mother, whose magnificat is still echoing in our ears.” Yes, Jesus finds his place in that scroll from Isaiah. He knows the words which give direction to his life. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free”. He finds these words and in them finds himself.
So much of our work as pastors is helping people find their place in the faith story, their story in God’s story. They may find themselves like Esther born for such a time as this, even when they least expect it. They too need to give voice to their story. I have been reminded of this over and over again by the people I serve among in Duluth. They have taught me this from the very beginning.
Peace United Church of Christ called me as their pastor 21 years ago. During my first months in Duluth my husband was unable to find work in Duluth, and so he continued his job as a police officer for the City of Minnetonka. One evening he called to say it had been a horrible day. He had been one of the first officers to arrive on the scene of a domestic homicide. Shortly after I hung up the phone, a member of my church, Joan Peterson, called. Her sister, Barbara Lund, had just been murdered by her ex- husband in Minnetonka, could I come to her home. Of course, and so I went to sit and listen. Our lives were connected in ways we never expected.
That event changed Joan’s life in ways unimaginable, but out of that tragedy she found a voice, and what a voice. She is active with the Brady Campaign and Million Mom March. Joan is a force to be reckoned with as she continues to bring attention to sensible gun laws and has organized countless demonstrations. She organized a rally and bell ringing at our church with over 200 people in attendance following the Newtown shootings. I am always moved when I see her in action–calling for justice and organizing. For the most recent event she organized speakers including the mayor and veterans, a gun shop owner and legislators, and other families affected by gun violence. She has found her place and her voice in sacred texts…“no one should hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” And many others in our congregation have joined her in her call for sensible gun laws, and we will not back down even following the senate vote last week. Joan’s emails and posts keep rolling in.
In addition to our non-violence work, our congregation has also been very involved with Anti-Racism work for over 16 years. Part of that passion came from Tony Ledeaux. You never saw Tony without his thermos of coffee, caffeine he was willing to share along with his stories. All that caffeine must have helped him do what he did. He was always on the move and on his cell phone. Tony was a Lakota elder and a community organizer; people came to him with their problems and he listened. More than that he helped people speak their truth to power. Through his work with the American Indian Commission in Duluth he began the work to create an Independent Civilian Review Board for our Duluth Police Department. Too many people of color were scared at times. But because of Tony’s credibility and his close working relationship with our police chief, the planning for such a board began.
In our congregation, he often held not just a coffee cup but also the communion cup, the cup of salvation. It too gave him strength for the journey back out into the world. He often spoke of the parallel paths–the red road and the way of Jesus. He walked them both.
Tony never saw the completion of the Civilian Review Board–he died over two years ago. Our hearts were broken, but the community came together through his life and in his death. His funeral began with native drumming and a pipe ceremony. I shared the leadership with Native elders. It was as Tony would want it. And as Tony would want it, Duluth now has an Independent Civilian Review Board. People carried on the work he began. A member of our congregation, Doug Bowen-Bailey, was active with Tony throughout the process and a part of our Dismantling Racism team, and is now a member of the Board.
Love one another…Those words captured Tony and he gave them voice. He lived it. He was a doer of the word. Love flowed forth from him in acts of justice and compassion and you couldn’t help but be caught up in it with him. Restoration is coming to a people.
Gary and Gary are two other of our members who are helping restoration come to a people. In January of 2011 our congregation had an adult forum series on marriage equality. The last Sunday of this series, we had our state representative Roger Reinert come and speak to us. He warned us that the anti-marriage amendment would be coming and we should get organized in a big way. Do something, he said. And our folks literally took it to heart. Gary Anderson and his partner Gary Boelhower, along with lots of other folks from our congregation, created an event called, “Love in Action”. We worked to create a giant valentine heart in support of marriage equality for all people. And so we did on February 13, 2011–hundreds of folks gathered in the parking lot of the Coppertop church dressed in red. We had a huge cherry picker that took photographers and media up to see what we had made. It was a singing heart of people. We sang, “Take me to the Chapel cause I’m gonna get married…” It was fun, it was huge. It was the beginning of a long journey, a journey that continues, that seeks a love that is big enough to hold us all. Love your neighbor…all your neighbors.
Each of us needs to unroll the scroll of our faith stories and find our place in them. As pastors we need to do this too—for me I have found my place in Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you visited me.” For the past 16 years I have gone every Thursday afternoon to the St. Louis County Jail and led a bible study for the women incarcerated there. That hour and a half each week has transformed me. It is simple enough. I begin each week with asking the women to tell me their first name and the weather in their souls—foggy, sunny, cloudy, it gives me a sense of the group—and then we simply read the gospel story for the week. It is a modified lectio divinia. Their stories are profound…I hear the text in truly new ways as they speak of their lives. My only goal is for them to know that they are a beloved child of God. They are loved.
Many of the women end up worshipping with us for awhile…some stay…Jaslyn did. She was a frustrating, vibrant member of our congregation and a member of our Dismantling Racism Team. As an African American mom she wasn’t afraid to speak her truth. She helped us see what is so hard when you are in the dominant culture. In spite of all you may have heard about Duluth’s Unfair Campaign, “it is hard to see racism when you’re white.”
Jaslyn worked with our youth in creating a banner about white privilege. She loved to paint and create, to make things beautiful and truth filled. And in the midst of the creating she would tell her stories and she would sing.
Jaslyn died last June at the age of 39 from an asthma attack. But the Sunday before she died, she sang the choral call to worship in church—no one in the congregation shall ever forget her singing…“When the praises go up, the blessings come down”. She sang and lived her faith in Jesus Christ so deeply. And truly, “when the praises go up the blessings do come down.”
We are blessed, you know, to be pastors. We get to know the stories, the stories in the scroll and the stories of our people. Dare to let the Holy Spirit fill you with the power. May it drive you home to find your place and your voice.
Peace friends ~ Kathy