This sermon was preached on Sunday November 6, 2016, All Saint’s Day observed
Link to the audio: https://stjohns-cathedral.org/sermons
This past week over 500 ecumenical and interfaith clergy peoples (representing 10 Christian denominations, and a further 6 faith groups) arrived in North Dakota to stand with Standing Rock. Barely covered in the news, the people of the Standing Rock reservation, in addition to thousands more Native Peoples from all over this country, have been standing in opposition to a project that threatens to destroy their only source of clean water for months. Water which is the essence of life. Water which is a gift from God. Water that nourishes us, cleanses us. It is in water that we are baptized into the loving church of God, into this family of believers, into a community that is unified through the love of Christ and the recognition of each other as the beloved creation of God.
The Native Peoples in Standing Rock have taken up the moniker “Water Protectors,” knowing that the work they are doing is not simply about protecting territory but rather is about protecting the precious gift of water that has been given to us by God. For water is a gift. And while a lot of us take this gift for granted as we turn the faucet on, or get ice and water on demand out of refrigerators, not everyone in this country, let alone the world, can take the gift of water for granted. For those lucky enough to have access to the life-giving and life-sustaining resource that is water, water represents to them a certain amount of stability in an otherwise trying existence. So, when these water protectors called out for help, when the Episcopal Church through local clergy and the support of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry heard this call before many others on the outside, hundreds responded to stand in solidarity with the water protectors. They recognized that water must be protected for water is life, water is God. They recognized that the Native Peoples of this country have been ignored and stepped over time and time again. They recognized that this was the least we could do to start and try to make amends for the way that the Native Peoples of this country have continually been left behind, corralled to parts unknown, ignored, dismissed in favor of those in power, those who took this land away and have never looked back.
And, in standing in solidarity with the water protectors, the clergy have followed the example that has been set by the protectors. The water protectors have been responding to threats against their very lives, for destroying their water source would truly destroy their lives, with non-violent protest. The water protectors, with attack dogs lashing out at them, with pepper spray being sprayed without prejudice, with private security contractors acting outside of the law with violence, with police responding with armored vehicles, in full military fatigues, vests, automatic weapons drawn, snipers lying in the hills, have continued to stand in opposition with prayer and song, standing before these militaristic forces in regular clothes, some atop horses, returning this extreme face of war with a face of peaceful resistance.
And so, the clergy that arrived this week took their turn. They sang, they prayed, they wore their native attire of cassocks, collars, and whatever warm layers were needed, as they took up the call, as they too responded to the presence of death with peaceful resistance. A part of this moment in standing in solidarity included conversation and the beginning of officially renouncing the doctrine of discovery, an historical excuse from the Church that allowed those with power to take land from Native Peoples, an excuse that was codified in the United States in the 1800s. And, in doing so, the gathered clergy are speaking on behalf of those who have sent them that the time has come to recognize that we do not get to choose who the saints of God are, rather it is up to us to recognize the holiness present within each and every one of us. It is up to us to recognize that the saints of God are all around us, present within each and every one of us, that we stand in solidarity with them when they need us, that we draw attention from our place of privilege to the atrocities that are being committed against those we would much rather ignore.
And we are warned today by Christ. We are warned about how we live in this world. We are warned about what privilege will get us in the afterlife. We are warned, and it is up to us to heed this warning.
Christ declares: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
We are the ones who need to heed this warning. The call of woe is directed at us. The call of woe is not directed at the water protectors who are fighting to protect their life spring. The call of woe is directed at the predominately white community near the original pathway of the pipeline who objected to it being so close to their homes that it had to be redirected through Native lands, redirected directly through the Missouri river. Redirected through land that had been taken from the Native Peoples once before, because if it was so easy to take the first time around, they certainly wouldn’t mind if we took it again. The call of woe is directed at all of us who question the motives of the water protectors rather than the motives of fabulously wealthy oil companies willing to put thousands at risk to make a few more dollars, at least until the finite resource of oil runs out that is. The call of woe is directed at all of us that keep the demand for oil so high, through our over consumption of a nonrenewable resource. The call of woe is directed at all of us who sit on the sidelines, watching this travesty unfold, and do absolutely nothing, not even a hashtag of solidarity, to express our dismay at a blatant attack on water, our most precious resource, a gift that has been left for us by God.
But we don’t have to sit here. We don’t have to have woe directed at us. We don’t have to wallow in our privilege, accepting that we are privileged and being content that simply accepting that fact is enough. For it is not enough. Accepting our place of privilege means using that privilege to enact real change in this world. Accepting our place of privilege means using that privilege to stand up and with those who are crying out in the wilderness, desperate for someone with real power, real authority to step in and end the torment they bravely face on a daily basis. The Water Protectors of Standing Rock have been bravely facing an increasingly violent police and private security presence in and around their camp. Facing it with the calm that comes from righteousness. The water protectors have exemplified Jesus’ call to love the enemy, to do good to those who hate you. It is up to us to utilize our place of privilege and make the stand of the water protectors known and understood by all. The clergy that arrived this week to stand in solidarity with the Native Peoples of Standing Rock, know that they are privileged, know that through their privilege a show of peaceful force in solidarity with the marginalized may ever-so-slightly begin to turn the tide, may begin to teach the rest of us that our privilege is only as good as what we do with it. At least, I hope it does, because all of those clergy have to return home again, and when they leave, who will protect the water protectors?
In commemorating all of the saints that have come before, we would do well to remember the legacy that they have left for us. We would do well to make sure that we too are leaving the legacy that we want to be remembered for when we are remembered on All Saint’s Days to come. If we heed the warning from Christ, if we understand that we cannot simply be, but rather we are called to do, and more still to understand those who are poor, hungry, to understand those whom we hate, exclude, revile, and defame, if we can come to this understanding, then we will be leaving a legacy and tradition of sainthood that should be passed on for generations to come.
You have the opportunity to build your legacy this coming week. Know that when we all wake up on Wednesday, November 9th, we have to still live with one another. Win and lose with graciousness. Understand that we are privileged to even have a say in how this country is governed. Utilize that privilege and be content to know that whichever direction we go on Tuesday, the world will keep spinning, and Christ will still be here to challenge us to live better, to be better, to heed his warning, and take on the call to be his disciple.
And, learn what is really at stake in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Learn why it is that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is encouraging all Episcopalians to pray for, stand in solidarity with, the Water Protectors. Be vocal today and stand with Standing Rock.