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Standing with Standing Rock (A Sermon)

November 6, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on All Saints Day / Stewardship Commitment Sunday, November 6, 2016

Luke 6:27-31

Jesus came down with and stood with them on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “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.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Our days began at 5:30 when a male voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “Wake up! Get up! Key Kta Po!” His voice projected across the teepees and tents at the Oceti Sakawin Camp at Standing Rock, along side the Cannonball River that flows eastward into the Missouri. “Wake up! Get up! Key Kta Po! The black snake is creeping toward the river. We’ve got to stop it!” My tent was on the edge of the camp, on the edge of what is Sioux Treaty Land. Of all their land that had once stretched like a carpet across the Dakotas and beyond, this is the remnant upon which they were “allowed” to remain by the U.S. government by the Treaty of Ft. Laramie. This is the land that, if the Dakota Access Pipeline were allowed to be built, would be at risk of environmental hazard. This Treaty Land. This Sacred Land. This small patch.

“Wake up! Get up! Get out of bed! Wake up! Key Kta Po! Get up! The black snake is creeping toward the river. We’ve got to stop it. Get up! Wake up! Christians get up. Christians shine up your crosses. The people working on the pipeline have been working for five hours already…” There were over five hundred of us who answered the call to come for a witness with the Standing Rock Sioux at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. We camped in tents on the scrubby ground, somewhat disoriented by the isolation of the camps and the simultaneous wide vistas all around us. I eye-balled the Cannonball River, the dividing line between the treaty land and what the US government and the Dakota Access Pipeline builders call “public” land; public only of course because it had been taken from the Sioux by force and cemented by treaty. The blue, frigid waters of the river reflected light from a distance as it flowed slowly eastward – looking positively peaceful despite the violent confrontation on its waters but the morning before as police descended upon water protectors and earth defenders crossing that river toward the construction site, descended with guns firing rubber bullets and mace piercing the water protector’s eyes. The river flowed as I stretched and stamped out my feet; cold from the under 30 degree nights.

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I shuffled my way in my boots toward the outhouses, then over to the sacred fire where I’d heard there was coffee. I wasn’t one hundred yards from my tent when I encountered a sun dancer who was also headed up the road to the circle around the sacred fire where people were singing and praying. The main road of the camp is lined with flagpoles flying flags of more than two hundred indigenous nations. We arrived and sang and prayed.

At 8:00 am, an honored grandmother stood up and lifted a pitcher of water four times. Mni Waconi, she said. Water is life. Mni Waconi. Water is life. We each received this water into our cupped left hands, drank deeply, and knew with our bodies that water is precious. This was the beginning of a women led ritual that takes place every morning, a procession of singing and praying all the way down to a tributary of the river than runs through the camp. Men were invited to follow. As Kara Maria Ananda has written, “In so many ways, women are leading the movement at Standing Rock to protect the waters of North Dakota and defend indigenous rights.”

The sacred fire burns constantly, tended a fire-keeper, at the center of the Oceti Sakowin Camp; a fire that defines the space as spiritual. More than 524 clergy and faith leaders of many faiths gathered with tribal leaders and water protectors around the sacred fire on Thursday morning, near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the ongoing impact this doctrine has had in particular on indigenous peoples, first nations and the earth.  The Doctrine of Discovery has been a key premise for European claims to legitimacy on and sovereignty over Indigenous lands and territories.

As the sacred fire burned, denominational leaders whose church bodies had repudiated the Doctrine Discovery stepped forward to read statements, including Sarah Lisherness, Director of Compassion Peace and Justice for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  Hudson River Presbytery members Harriet and Max Sandmeier, Sarah Henkel, Will Summers, Rick Ufford-Chase, and I participated in the ceremony. These statements were received by the many tribal leaders of different first nations who have gathered at Standing Rock.

The Doctrine of Discovery got its start when Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull, Romans Pontifex, in 1455 granting Portugal the right to claim as its own any land outside Europe not ruled by a Christian monarch and to enslave its people. This doctrine was the first international law ever issued, and was used to legitimize the colonization of parts of Africa and later the Americas. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera granting the same right to Spain in the “New World.” It would be used by France and England to claim North America. You might think this sounds like ancient history, not relvant to today. But the Doctrine of Discovery entered U.S. law via Thomas Jefferson, was utilized by the Supreme Court in 1823, and was still being cited by the U.S. government as recently as 2005 to prosecute those being held at Guantanamo Bay.

On Thursday morning, after the religious leaders from many denominations read statements repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, the Rev. John Floburg, an Episcopal Priest who has served the Episcopal parish of Standing Rock for more than 25 years, handed indigenous leaders a copy of the 1455 Papal Bull that had legitimized the theft of their land; he took this Latin text and gave it to indigenous leaders and inquired whether they thought it would be appropriate to burn it in the sacred fire. Tribal elders and the sacred fire-keeper consulted and said it would not be appropriate. Instead they held the Papal Bull aloft, as John Floburg lit it afire with a lighter. The Doctrine burned. The smoke rose into the sky as construction on the pipeline continued in the distance. I wept.

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In our scripture reading today, Luke not only gives us the more familiar blessed bes, but also a matching pair of woe to yous. His words are also starkly clear: not blessed are the poor in spirit, but blessed are the poor. Not blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but blessed are the hungry. And woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are filled. Luke wants us to see the connection between wealth and poverty. He will not let us off praying for the poor without examining our own lives and our interconnections as one human family. Jesus blessings and woes force us to see ourselves as one community of rich and poor and press us to name the connections between the prosperity of some and the poverty of others. And he calls for decision, conversion, choice.

Luke frames his version of the beatitudes along the lines of a re-covenanting ceremony where we, the reader, must choose between one way of life and another. In their form of blessings and woes, these beatitudes are reminiscent of when Moses summarized the law and put forth the challenge, “Choose this day whom you will serve” as he stood before the people, perched together on a hillside about to enter into the long awaited promised land. The writer of Deuteronomy recounts Moses’ words on that occasion.

“See I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to other gods, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land. I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your decedents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.”

Jesus, like Moses before him, is asking, “whose side are you on?” He is not teaching, or preaching, or guiding a searching people. He is going straight for our heart, our will. He wants a choice. In God’s kingdom, God’s world, there is not to be poverty, hunger, or weeping. Or rather, God intends for those who are poor to be lifted up, those who are hungry to be fed, and those who weep to be comforted. We are called by this text to choose sides with all who are oppressed because that is where God is. The gospel is good news to them. It can be good news to us.

In the evening as all the clergy of different faiths were gathered, a grandmother from the Standing Rock Sioux came forward to address us. She said, “We knew you were coming. We knew you were coming. When I would speak with my grandmother, so many years ago; when we would sit together and talk about how we had been hurt, what we had lost, what had been done to us, we would always say, one day, one day they will come. One day they will come and they will want to understand.”

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[1] Kara Maria Ananda. “The Women of Standing Rock are Midwifing a Global Movement.”

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