“Be Bold”

Janitors and security guards are standing up for climate justice. I learned this reading a recent email from MN 350. Here’s the scoop:

Commercial office buildings contribute 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, and many of these buildings are owned or inhabited by corporations who greenwash their brands while funding organizations that lobby against climate action. Minnesota’s wealthiest corporations are on the board of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which in 2019 actively opposed 100% clean energy bills at the state legislature. . . . The [SEIU Local 26] workers who clean and protect those corporate buildings are calling on their employers to stop polluting. In addition to asking for a Green Cleaning program, they are demanding corporations stop opposing 100% clean energy legislation, and that building owners sit at a table with workers and community groups to develop bold climate solutions.

Elsa, who cleans at United Health Group, explains why [she is engaged in this work]: “We are people from the countryside in Ecuador, and when I was young it was a fertile place. But then the droughts began, and the land didn’t produce anymore. As people who lived on what we took from the earth, we had to leave. We were not alone, millions of people from the areas near my village left too, in one of the biggest migrations ever out of South America. Now I clean buildings that are some of the biggest polluters in Minnesota, which furthers the same problem that made me immigrate. This must be addressed.”[1]

Wow, what boldness I hear in Elsa’s voice! I am guessing that for lots of reasons, it might be safer for Elsa and the other workers to stay silent and stay in the shadows. They are bold to shed light on truths that have intentionally been kept hidden. Our disproportionate use of energy in office buildings here is linked to the forced migration of people in South and Central America. Our wealthiest corporations, those we buy from and work for, even those who give back to the community and who are known to be fair to their employees, are obstructing justice, are intentionally preventing us from engaging in the urgent action needed to repair our relationships with the land, the climate, and each other.

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Note the present tense. Jesus isn’t urging his disciples become something they are not. He is saying: this is who you are; live out your identity with boldness! Here Jesus is elaborating on the beatitudes. He has just gotten done declaring that God blesses humanity especially in situations that seem to reveal our lack of blessing. God’s blessing enters us through our wounds. God’s blessing gives us hope and strength in our places of poverty and powerlessness. And God’s blessing empowers and equips us to act with boldness for justice.

Both salt and light were precious substances in Jesus’ day. Imagine how the falling of darkness each evening must have defined life in a world without electricity. And think about how salt was so scarce in those days that it was used like money. Both of these natural elements have something else in common: they exist to support the gifts of others; they are here to be part of something greater than themselves. Light makes the world visible to our eyes; light warms our skin; light powers photosynthesis and energizes solar panels. Salt brings out the flavors in our meals. It preserves food, cleans wounds, and melts ice.

So when we live out who we are with boldness, that is a precious and rare gift to the world. Like salt and light, our discipleship has an amplifying effect—bringing forth flavor, illuminating beauty, warming hearts, exposing hidden truths, preserving and healing what is valuable, advocating for change with irritating assertiveness. Our actions on behalf of justice are not singular; they become tributaries of a great river of blessing. God’s justice, in which we participate, is an ancient vision of right relationship set forth in the Jewish law, proclaimed by the prophets, embodied in the ministry of Jesus, and inscribed in our own hearts.

Let’s take a few minutes now with the social change ecosystem. Take a look at the insert in the bulletin. We’ve been considering our roles for several weeks—both those roles that come more naturally to us and those roles about which we say, “I think I could be . . .” or “I’d like to be . . .” And we’ve been pondering how each of the roles compliment the others, need the others. Today, I invite you to consider how you are going to show up in your role or roles in the coming weeks and months. How do you intend to act with boldness in this political climate? Take that post-it note in your bulletin and write a word or phrase on it. Later, you can place the note in offering plate, and we’ll use these to continue to build a visual of our collective power to be agents of change. Let’s take a few minutes now to respond to the question, “How do you intend to act with boldness in this political climate?”

Jesus’ sermon today also asks us to name what is getting in the way of boldly being ourselves. What destroys your saltiness? And how can it be restored? What causes you to hide your light? And what will liberate you so that you can uncover the brightness that is naturally yours and let it shine? When fear or self-doubt, apathy or cynicism strike, it helps me to draw strength from the witnesses and saints all around us. In this time in which the rotten, evil lies of white supremacy and anti-Semitism are cheering each other on, I am recalling that Jesus, at the very end of today’s section of the sermon on the mount, raised up the Jewish leaders called the Pharisees as models of righteousness, as exemplars of political courage, as teachers who dedicated themselves to boldly living God’s vision of blessing for the world. And in this time in which our immigrant neighbors live with such incredible fear, I’m thinking of the breath-taking boldness of Elsa from El Salvador. And in this time of climate chaos, born of our continuing colonization of all that is sacred, I am really trying hard to listen to and learn from our indigenous siblings. And in this time in which our Christian faith continues to serve as a tool for slave masters, I look to Frederick Douglass, who illegally learned to read with the Gospels as his text, and who found buried in those pages a message of liberation. As the icon on the bulletin cover depicts, for Douglass, Jesus was the north star pointing to freedom.

Our passage from the prophet Isaiah provides a helpful way of framing our work for justice. On the one hand, the prophet criticized the religious practices of the nation as self-serving. The people were exploiting others for their own gain and that showed up even in the way they prayed. Their spirits were unhappy and unhealthy. They felt far from God. And yet, paradoxically, it’s clear that when the people behaved in this selfish way they weren’t really serving themselves either. If you do what is right, God tells them, then “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” So living our calling toward justice is not something that drains us, that takes away our energy. A commitment to bold discipleship amplifies and multiplies our own health and well-being. Being salt and light brings blessing and joy. It’s who we are. Amen.

[1] (MN 350 e newsletters Jan 30 and Feb 2, 2020)