I imagine it was intended as a playful insult when my high school class voted me “Most Likely to be a Youth Minister in North Dakota.” I think they recognized my gifts for youth ministry but imagined that I would be a youth minister in some boring, conservative state in Middle America. I can’t say that I was ever proud to be given that title. However, I am proud to be a youth minister in the Episcopal Church, as I have been for almost ten years now. I am proud to be the Director of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group, which is now enjoying its fifth year, if you can believe it! In fact, the Rev. Canon Stefani Schatz, the Canon to the Ordinary, said that the Marin Episcopal Youth Group is likely the most successful collaborative youth ministry in the country! (I think that that “success” is measured in terms of longevity. I think I would measure it in terms of how we pray and how we care for the poor and vulnerable and we’ve done a pretty good job at that for several years.) So on this Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing, I invite us all to rejoice that Nativity has been home to the most successful collaborative youth ministry in the country! Also, I am proud to say that I ended up fulfilling my high school appellation and title about a month ago when I stood with more than 500 other clergy in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock. For a few days in November, I was indeed a youth minister in North Dakota.
And I’d like to talk about that experience with you briefly this morning. I did not go to North Dakota to enjoy the weather, which was sweltering during the day and below freezing at night. I did not go to watch “a reed shaken by the wind,” although there were plenty of reeds on the Great Plains being swayed by the mighty Dakota winds. I did not go to admire someone dressed in soft robes. North Dakota is not really the best place for that. I went to North Dakota because I felt called by God to do what our readings this morning invite all of us to do: that is, to pay attention to and participate in the liberating and healing work that God is doing among the vulnerable.
The Rev. John Floberg, the presiding priest of Episcopal churches at Standing Rock Sioux reservation, issued a call in late September for all clergy to stand in solidarity in early November with the water protectors, who had been taking peaceful, prayerful, and non-violent direct action against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), an oil pipeline that would desecrate their sacred burial grounds and very easily contaminate their water supply. This clergy call was a clear invitation for me, as a priest, to participate in God’s powerful work among the vulnerable. And it was powerful work indeed. When Father Floberg first issued the call, he imagined that only about 100 clergy would show up due to the short notice, but instead there were a total of 523 of us. Floberg pointed out that this number of clergy was especially relevant because it had (and has) been 523 years since the Catholic Church first issued the Doctrine of Discovery in 1493, a papal bull that gave Christian rulers free reign to exploit and abuse the people and the lands of the Americas. So each clergy person present seemed to represent a year of violent oppression against indigenous peoples in the name of religion as well as a tangible embodiment of the church’s penitence for that oppression. The physical presence of our bodies communicated not only our contrition for the past but also our solidarity with the Sioux today and our willingness to risk our own health and well-being in order to support them, their cause and their land. And in order to underscore our rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery, several representatives of Christian denominations (including the Episcopal Church) read their church’s official repudiation of the doctrine. We then gave a paper copy of the Doctrine of Discovery to a group of elders who represented several Native American tribes and invited them to burn it by their sacred fire, which they did, followed by a glorious uproar of tremolos and cheers.
After burning the Doctrine of Discovery, 523 of us clergy processed down North Dakota Highway 1806, with a Christian cross and crucifer leading the procession, to a road blockade on Backwater Bridge, where the water protectors had previously resisted and confronted the DAPL police. As we processed, helicopters flew overhead and several armed police officers stood beside massive trucks and tanks, ready to shoot rubber bullets or spray mace at anyone of us who might attempt to cross the bridge or step into the creek below (Cantapeta creek). As clergy, our mission was not to confront or provoke the DAPL police but rather to pray for and show our solidarity with the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux, who were taking non-violent direct action against DAPL. So when we arrived at the road blockade, we prayed prayers and sang songs led by representatives of our many faith traditions: Christianity (and its many flavors), Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Hare Krishna. There were also some fascinating outliers among us such as some Pagan Druids and one woman who identified as a Dove Oracle Priestess (who also happened to be an Episcopalian from Fargo). We prayed for God to stir up his power in protecting the people and the land. And then we listened to the words of some of the tribal elders who spoke to us. And I learned that the entire resistance movement against DAPL began with the youth of Standing Rock, who initially approached the elders and insisted that they protect that which is vulnerable: the land and the water, which was becoming vulnerable to desecration and contamination. And the elders were wise enough to listen to the youth, whose future livelihood was at risk because of DAPL. The tribal elders listened to the cries of the vulnerable youth, who were listening to the cries of the vulnerable planet and they all gave themselves over to the God who is always stirring up his love and power among those who are vulnerable.
And I am thrilled to say that, about a month after our clergy gathering, God indeed stirred his power with great might and our prayers were answered. Last Sunday, the Federal authorities halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. So we have yet another reason to rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday of Rejoicing.
Soon after hearing the news of the halted pipeline, a 13-year-old girl from the Standing Rock reservation named Tokata Iron Eyes, was interviewed by a videographer (Naomi Klein) and said, “This entire movement was brought up by the youth. And it just started so small. And this entire camp was built and it was just very powerful to see everybody coming together and living together and praying together and having ceremonies together and it was just so powerful…And now the easement for DAPL was denied!”
Naomi Klein then asked Tokata Iron Eyes how that news made her feel as a 13-year-old who launched a campaign with her friends and family. The young girl then said, with an almost giddy joy, “I feel like I got my future back.” And then her joyful laughter turned into joyful tears as she embraced the journalist who became emotional as well. And beaming through Tokata Iron Eyes, I see so clearly the spirit of Mary, another young girl who gave birth to a liberating movement that forever changed the world, and who also expressed her overwhelming joy to another woman, Elizabeth. I can hear Tokata Iron Eyes proclaiming with Mary: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant . . . He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has halted those who are proud. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry and thirsty with good things but has sent the rich and greedy away empty.”
I can also imagine Tokata Iron Eyes singing the words of the prophet Isaiah (which we read this morning), “Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and the thirsty ground [become] springs of fresh water.” The daily (if not hourly) chant that I heard while staying at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock was “Mni Wiconi! Mni Wiconi!” which means “Water is life! Water is life!” The prophet Isaiah also understood the precious and life-giving value of water. In the chapter right before our reading this morning (chapter 34:9), Isaiah portrays a sinful land by describing streams of water being turned into tar. Sin involves violence towards that which is vulnerable; and God, who is always on the side of the vulnerable, invites us to side with him and to protect potential victims of violence and greed, especially if that includes water because a land with no water is a land with no life. God invites us to pay attention to the powerful work he is doing in protecting, healing and liberating that which is threatened and vulnerable. That is the message of the Scriptures this morning. And God invites us to be prepared to participate in that work.
When John the Baptist and his disciples ask Jesus, “What’s going on? Are you really the Messiah? Are you really ‘God among us’? Or is there someone else coming whom we should expect who’s going to get John the Baptist out of jail and liberate all victims?” Jesus responds by saying, “Pay attention to what God has been doing to the vulnerable among you. The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are receiving good news.” God is stirring his power and protecting and liberating the vulnerable, if we have eyes to see.
Jesus then praises John the Baptist as perhaps the greatest prophet, but then explains that John the Baptist was preparing us for something greater. He was preparing us by turning our attention to those on the margins of society, including deviant, desert mystics like himself, who were eating locusts and covered in camel’s hair. He helped us to start seeing God at work among those whom we might dismiss or might not expect to be agents of God’s Reign on earth. And Jesus said, “If you were impressed with him, just wait, it’s going to get much more radical. I am raising up a new army of prophets and saints who are going to make John the Baptist look tame in comparison.”
And this new army of prophets and saints is made up of vulnerable people who wield only the weapon of love in order to protect other vulnerable people and our planet. It is this army that we are called into as baptized followers of Christ. So may we wake up, may we pay attention and be prepared to participate in that work. May we listen to the concerns and passions of the youth among us, may we attend to the homeless people we encounter on the streets, to victims of racism and violence, and to our planet, which Pope Francis calls our sister, who “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her.” And let us pray that God stir us up and show us clearly how we can participate in his healing and liberating work so that we may also rejoice (gaudete) with Isaiah and Mary and Tokata Iron Eyes, giving thanks for the God who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry and thirsty with food and life-giving water (mni wiconi) and sends the rich and greedy away empty. Amen.