A sermon by the Rev. Chelsea Stanton
Sunday, February 19th, 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Here at St. John’s, the dismissal, which is one of my parts as the deacon, says “Our worship here is ended; now our service begins.” Today’s texts are an illustration of that idea. Jesus is with the disciples, having a mystical experience of the past and the present, the living and the dead, the heavens and the earth, colliding. This mystical experience empowers the disciples for what comes next in our story: Jesus being handed over to suffering and death. The Godde of the universe dying as a sacrifice to humanity’s cruelty and overcoming it by rising again.
The disciples have this mystical, mountaintop experience to prepare them for the trials that lie ahead, to be the people that Godde calls them to be. And that’s what our worship does too. We come together here to be transformed by hearing scripture, by singing together, by giving and receiving the body and blood of Christ so that we are powered to change the world.
The text from Leviticus says, “You all shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.” I imagine that second part being like a parent saying, “I AM YOUR MOTHER.” Do it because you trust me, because I know what’s best for you.
In the churches I grew up in, being holy had a very clear definition. No drinking, no dancing, no tattoos, no secular music, no to most movies, yes to strict gender boundaries and purity culture, no to thinking too much about anything outside of how to keep yourself personally clean from the tempting world.
But you may have noticed that the definition of holiness that this passage from Leviticus presents is completely different from what I just described. To be holy like Godde is holy means
- To intentionally leave a portion of your proceeds for people who have been oppressed
- To not hold back wages from people who work for you
- To not corrupt the justice system for your own ends–making it unjust
- To not stand by at the blood of your neighbor
I think all of these commands boil down to this: love your neighbor as yourself–which we hear in the passage from Leviticus and which we will hear again from Jesus on Maundy Thursday. If we took these commands seriously, our society would be transformed. We would share what we have without complaint, not simply because it makes us feel good but because Godde, YOUR MOTHER, says people who have been oppressed also have a right to the fruits of the earth. We would use the power that we have to protect workers; to make a peaceful world for people living in fear of those who are supposed to protect them; for people trying to fit into a world not built for them because of their color, gender, differing abilities, or orientation.
And I think it’s not a stretch to say that St. John’s has historically been aligned with people who the world was built for–rich, white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied men. Men who we wouldn’t be surprised to learn had stolen the wages of the folks who worked for them, who made the justice system unjust to steal labor from Black and Brown bodies, who denied leadership to women of all colors, whose greed enabled them to build the structures–both physical and mental–that we live in today.
One such physical structure here in our space is the angel to my right. It’s a beautiful piece that means a lot to people because it has been a companion to baptisms in this sacred space. BUT it was gifted to St. John’s in loving memory of Amherst Wilder. You can see the dedication on the base. Nowadays the Wilder name is known for the amazing work done by the Wilder Foundation, but the work they have done in reckoning with their history reveals that their namesake was one of those privileged white men who gained his wealth by the suffering of other people.
Amherst Wilder came to Minnesota in the 1830s. He worked as a government contractor, providing food and goods to forts and reservations. He later became involved in the railroad industry, where he worked with others to push government action that allowed the theft of land from the Ojibwe and Dakota. The railroad would then buy the land cheaply. He also participated in schemes to get white settlers to live in homes on reservation land then bring court cases when the settlers were denied the deed, chipping away at the rights of Indigenous folks to their homeland.
In November 1872, government agent E.P. Smith sold all the pine and cedar timber on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation to Wilder, without the consent of the tribe. According to the Wilder Foundation’s Critical History Project, the Ojibwe believed “that the pine sale was a further attempt by European-American settlers to diminish Ojibwe sovereignty and gain control over their resources.” Leech Lake citizens wrote to the government, took government supplies, and raided lumber camps in protest.
When the case went to court, the person we revere as the first Native American ordained an Episcopal priest, Enmegahbowh, came with Ojibwe leaders to testify against the timber sale, E.P. Smith, and Wilder.
E.P. Smith and Wilder were not convicted of any crimes, but that’s not because the court thought that the deal was made with the consent of the Ojibwe. Rather, they all agreed that the tribe did not give their consent, but that, despite their strong objections, the deal was declared good for the tribe. An example of the paternalistic attitude of settler colonialism.
Now that we know more about our past, it’s up to us to decide who we want to be in the future. Do we want to be a community where only one kind of person fits? Where we uphold traditions that were invented to exclude and abuse? Or a place where everyone can feel welcome? I think it’s not a stretch to say we would all say the latter. Now we need to work to make it real. That’s how we will be holy. That’s how we take our mountaintop experiences in worship and move them into real life.
But why, if we want to change, haven’t things changed already? Why does it seem like such a long and fraught process? Because our minds have been conformed to this world, like the passage from Romans says. We have become acclimated to the norms of rich, historically-white churches like ours, with structures that were built to exclude. Our capitalist culture says that no one has a right to anything; that we need to take everything we can get for ourselves and punish those who haven’t managed to get enough because that means they don’t deserve it.
What we really need is not to win at capitalism, but, as Romans says, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need to build a culture that remembers we are all related, that believes when Godde says we are all deserving, that shares because it’s our responsibility and our delight. Our racial healing Holy Eucharists and reading from the Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church are bringing this powerful work to our worship, because this gathering is where we are formed to change the world. May we challenge ourselves to continue the work until we are transformed into a holiness that loves our neighbors as ourselves, with both our words and actions, every day.