Sermon: Divine resilience

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Psalm 34:1-8

I want to begin my sermon today with a mini “breaking open the word.” We’ll just do one round reflecting on what words or phrases jump out as you hear the text? I will also put it in the chat box.

I will bless the Divine always;
praise will continually be on my lips!
My soul will boast about YHWH—
let the oppressed hear it and be glad!
Glorify the Divine with me,
and let us exalt God’s Name together!
I sought the Lord, who answered me
and freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to the Divine are radiant,
and their faces are never covered with shame.
The poor called out; YHWH heard
and saved them from all their troubles.
The angel of God encamps around those 
who revere God, and rescues them.
Taste and see how good God is!
Happiness comes to those who take refuge in the Divine. 

This text is categorized as a psalm of thanksgiving, focusing on the deliverance that comes from trust in the Divine. It could also be understood as a song of resistance, passed down through generations of people who are looking to the Spirit of Life to sustain them in the midst of fear, troubles and oppression. 

We might be suspicious of phrases like “YHWH heard and saved them from all their troubles” and “The angel of God encamps around those who revere God, and rescues them. I mean it can feel like a lie since so many people are oppressed and without rescue… what about them?? 

However, I think the text is actually getting at something else. These are songs of self-determination, of people claiming that the impossible could come to pass. Rather than the empire or the slaveholders having all the power, there is a greater spiritual power. What the people possess is greater than the power of the rulers. 

Our Anabaptist forebears sang these kinds of spiritual songs about their trust in God’s power in the face of imperial Christian power. They sang in jail cells just like centuries later, the countless numbers of people, mostly Black, who were thrown into jail during the Southern Freedom Movement. These movements birthed songs and these songs sustained the people through fear, troubles and oppression. 

“We Shall Overcome,” a song with its roots in the Highlander Folk School during the labor struggles of the 1940s, became the unofficial anthem of the Southern Freedom Movement. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said, “One cannot describe the vitality and emotion this one song evokes across the Southland. I have heard it sung in great mass meetings with a thousand voices singing as one; I’ve heard a half-dozen sing it softly behind the bars of the Hinds County prison in Mississippi; I’ve heard old women singing it on the way to work in Albany, Georgia; I’ve heard the students singing it as they were being dragged away to jail. It generates power that is indescribable”

More recently the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is one movement that has taken up the mantle of song. They encourage every action under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign to designate a theomusicologist. This person is the song leader, helping the gathered body to claim their power through song. The singing is as central as the speeches. 

I want to show a short clip from an action that happened in San Francisco on July 26, demanding Senator Diane Feinstein commit to ending the filibuster and support voting rights for all. The theomusicologist at this action was Virginia Hollins-Davidson. 

Singing these songs is an act of resistance and a way to claim the possibility of the impossible. It is an act of reminding ourselves that greed and the pandemic and wildfire smoke are not the end of us. Rather we are invited into a deeper solidarity with each other and creation. 

We can think of this solidarity as partnering with the Spirit of Life who accompanies all living under the weight of oppression. We are not waiting for God to come down, but waiting for people of Spirit to rise up! Harriet Tubman did not wait for some Divine being to show up and loose her bonds, she rose up and led her people to freedom, trusting God every step of the way. 

Divine resilience empowers us to act together, in the midst of insurmountable odds. 

This is the commitment of the Poor People’s Campaign. Now in a season of NVDA the Poor People’s Campaign is demanding four things of the US Senate and White House:

  1. End the filibuster
  2. Pass all provisions of the For the People Act
  3. Fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act
  4. Raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hr

There have been actions in at least 40 states since mid-July (including the one in SF) articulating these demands and singing songs of resistance and power. 

On the local level Divine resilience empowered Faith in Action leaders to fight for and win 32 million dollars in local rent relief. This relief is specifically designated for people who are ineligible for a program run by the state.

And today Helen Stoltzfus, of our congregation, is on her way to Minnesota to stand with all those seeking to stop Line 3, a deadly pipeline. Line 3 is a proposed pipeline expansion to bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. It was proposed in 2014 by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in the US. Enbridge seeks to build a new pipeline corridor through untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of Anishinaabe peoples, through the Mississippi River headwaters to the shore of Lake Superior. 

In addition to the inevitability of the pipeline spilling, Line 3 would violate the treaty rights of Anishinaabe peoples and nations in its path — wild rice is a centerpiece of Anishinaabe culture, it grows in numerous watersheds Line 3 seeks to cross.

Helen is joining members of Extinction Rebellion from across the country who have been organizing together to show up in solidarity. They are partnering with and following the lead of Anishinaabe peoples. This ongoing collective action is a witness to the Spirit of Life… it is a witness against fear, and it is a movement claiming a power greater than that of the hegemonic and rapacious oil industry. 

I asked Helen if she would be willing to write something for us about why she is going to MN to support this movement with her body. And guess what? In response she wrote a poem, a contemporary psalm, if you will. 

Why I Am Going to Minnesota
By Helen Stoltzfus

I am going to Minnesota
Because when a pipeline leaks
Birds can’t fly
People can’t drink water
Wetlands can’t grow wild rice
Because a body covered by oil
Is an obscene sacrilege
And all pipelines leak eventually

I am going to Minnesota
Because Tara Houska
A native lawyer from northern Minnesota
Has asked us to come
Because Indigenous people can’t do this alone

I am going to Minnesota
Because I’ve relegated native Americans 
to the margins of my activism
“Important” but not THAT important

I am going to Minnesota because in fact
the ones on the margins
Are the heart of the climate crisis
Where rubber meets the road
Or in this case
Where oil meets the ground
Meets the water you drink
Meets your childhood haunts
Meets your sacred sites

I am going to Minnesota
Because the world is burning
And I can’t escape it
Because the Bootleg fire followed me
3000 miles from Oregon to the
Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
(In whose lap I was born 
Surrounded by the
Deep purple Blue Ridge mountains
Which are nearly invisible now in the haze 
of smoke and PM25: 
invisible deadly micro pollutants)

I am going to Minnesota because
if they finish the pipeline
All the carbon dioxide released from burning tar sands oil
will travel to MY lungs and yours

I am going to Minnesota
Because if I don’t act I will go mad with grief and rage
Because even though there will be chaos
And tactics I don’t like
And people I disagree with
It doesn’t matter
Because there is too much to lose
And too little time 

I am going to Minnesota
Because right now 
the center of the climate crisis 
may be in rural Northern Minnesota
Where I need to wear an N95 mask to protect me from 
tear gas
From Canadian wildfires
AND from the renegade Delta variant

I am going to Minnesota
Because showing up
Is what makes me feel alive
Because the bears want me to
Because God is understanding the Great Burning
Through my body and yours and the bodies of the Anishinaabe people
Because it’s not about hope
But about the courage to do
Whatever bold act you can 
Without any idea of what will happen

May Helen’s psalm of love, resistance and a willingness to act strengthen our hearts. May our singing be our prayers, whether we sing alone or with one another in defiance of fear and despair. We are not waiting for God to come down, but waiting for people of Spirit to rise up! We are not waiting for God to come down, but waiting for people of Spirit to rise up! We are not waiting for God to come down, but waiting for people of Spirit to rise up!

All glory and honor and power be to the Creator and Spirit of Life that sustains us. Amen.