A sermon by Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Given at the Homecoming Service at North Central College, Naperville, IL commemorating 50 years since graduating in 1971.
“To a Young Activist” A Reading from the Letter of Thomas Merton to Jim Forest:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the righteousness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
Gospel Reading: Luke 4: 16-21
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
to bring good news to the poor,
Sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
In the Name of the One who was, who is, and is to come, Let all of this be…
All of us, to one extent or another can identify with the Homecoming of Jesus to Nazareth – returning to where he began. He’s back to the shul where he learned Hebrew and its texts, back to his synagogue, from which, first as an infant, then as a young person, he made the pilgrimages to Jerusalem. On one occasion to sit with the rabbis and learn from them; or if Luke has it right to astound and teach them.
I’ll wager another pilgrimage in his student days: to the ruins of
Sephoris, a five mile walk from Nazareth. After the death of Herod Great (so around the birth of Jesus), a tax revolt and uprising originated there. The rebellion successfully threw off the Roman occupation and freed the city. Whereupon a legion came down from the north, sacked and ruined the city, and crucified (today we would say lynched) huge numbers of the insurgents along the roadway into town.
That place, that story, that experience would be inevitably imprinted on his young psyche.
Since leaving home he’s apprenticed himself to John and his baptism movement. He’s been schooled by the Jordon River and tutored by a dove. And just when he thinks he knows who he is, by whom he’s beloved, he’s suddenly matriculated into the wilderness, where in something very like a vision quest, he discerns and wrestles with the powers, voices at once external (as in Jerusalem and Rome) and internal (as from the corners of his depths).
Then, after John is arrested and executed, he takes up John’s cry (word for word no less): “Repent, for the realm of God is at hand.” Not a little gutsy and dicey. Some friends and family surely warned him it was a bad career move, but with a risk and cost he counted. His formation and vocation were already a journey.
Between that cry and the text from Isaiah for his inaugural sermon, he’s charting a course for his life and work: what might be called a Jubilee Agenda. I doubt much explanation is required on this score. Every 7th (sabbath) year or 50th (7×7+1Jubilee) year, certain provisions were supposed to be enacted. (You may know that Yom Kippur a few weeks ago marked the beginning of such a year). Among the provisions:
land is to lie fallow for earth to rest;
land was never to be sold in perpetuity; for the earth is mine, says God;
so, land lost to taxes or exploitation was to be returned to its original owners;
debts were to be forgiven and debt prisoners freed;
slaves were set free and given a stake to survive, even flourish.
At least since the work of Andre Trocme in 1940’s, scholars recognize this as programmatic, economically and socially, for Jesus’s ministry.
Let me only add, I think it the better part of wisdom to have ended the reading before his sermon began. It went seemingly so well at first – until he starts to affirm the place and importance of immigrants and foreigners, whereupon the congregation decides to gather stones and throw him off a cliff. A detail of which this preacher takes judicious note.
In Detroit a few years ago, Grace Lee Boggs crossed over just days shy of her 100th birthday. A Chinese-American with a PhD from Bryn Mawr, she had been part of virtually every movement of the 20th century: Labor, anti-war, freedom struggle and Black Power, women’s movement, urban agriculture, environmental justice and climate defense, anti-crack and anti-handgun struggles of urban nonviolence, more. Bill Moyers called her “An American Revolutionary,” and her portrait hangs in the Women’s Museum in Seneca Falls, NY.
Grace had a practice of provoking discussion in neighborhood and community meetings by asking two questions. The first was:
What time is it on the clock of the world?[i]
The second was like unto it:
What does it mean to be a human being in this period?
In our reading today, Jesus, like Isaiah, is answering the question, “What time is it on God’s clock?” He’s announcing the time, declaring it, proclaiming the year of jubilee. Then he sits down and says: Can’t you hear it? It’s fulfilled in your listening. Can’t you see it? It’s happening right before your eyes!
For myself and some others in the room, it is fifty years since our graduation from North Central…
Then the Voting Rights Act had been struggled for (people giving their lives) and passed;
Now it’s been gutted by Supreme Court and subverted especially in the very states it once constrained; Likewise with the Freedom Struggle and Civil Rights movement; as we now see massive expressions of official violence and resurgent White Supremacy (but also a brilliant and lively street movement of young people responding whose impact reaches even to the offices and task forces of NCC).
Fifty years ago we were trying to end a war. The troops were being called home, so the air-war was cranking up. We were learning about the “automated battlefield,” where a network of sensors were dropped which could then direct and target anti-personnel weapons – napalm and cluster bombs.
Now we have look down capability, and robot planes for drone strikes, creating state terrorism “over the horizon” in the name of precision.
Then, the nuclear threat was based on MAD, turning the Cold War into an absurd, two-headed monster.
Now, the Pentagon’s escalation dominance is still dependent on nuclear weapons and their genocidal logic, but delivery technology has dictated and rendered them first-strike capable, so policy follows. (The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which has its own clock now sets it at 100 seconds to midnight, but they’re also taking climate catastrophe into account).
There is a direct spiritual connection between nuclear weapons and climate collapse. Once you’ve said as a people that you’re prepared to incinerate half the planet or more to retain dominance, and build it into both policy and machinery, then the willingness and lassitude to make the slower burn easily follows.
Then, we were reading early warnings like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Now, 1 in 3 Americans has experienced a catastrophic climate event, human generated.
The assault on democracy and the threat of fascism, narrowly averted, is no less real now than it was then
And now we have COVID, a world crisis that reveals all the structures of inequality, but also the inability of the imperial nations and the corporate complex to address the crisis globally.
And yet, COVID is not the crisis, just one in a series of cascading crises we are beginning to face. The question remains: What does it mean to be a human being in this period? What does it mean to live humanly? And so, even to live in hope.
Though I am being most sober, I am not preaching despair. I’m just convinced, there is no hope without clear-sighted realism, without looking the beast in the face, or even the mirror. Optimism may be readily based on denial, but not true hope.
Here’s a hope dear friends: God has gotten into history. There is more going on than is visible, calculable, measurable. It’s at work in an obscure synagogue, in a backwater Palestinian town. It’s at work on a campus, in an old seminary chapel. It speaks in fires and storms, but also in hearts.
Years ago, in the shadow of the nuclear crisis, Jim Douglass wrote a book, Lightning East to West. His wife Shelly wrote the preface in which she said: “We need to live our lives as though, without change, the world will end tomorrow.” And “We need to live our lives in relationship as if we have all the time (hence all the patience) in the world.”
I want to return to the Jubilee provisions and their spiritual movement
They are predicated on certain observations: Capital extracts and multiplies
[gesturing a grasp and grip]
Land, as property, consolidates
Even that institutions grow beyond their purposes,
forget where they began fall into the grip of larger powers
The spiritual movement is in our passage
“Release to the captives” (Isaiah/Luke) [gesturing open handed gift and release…]
Releasing (or forgiving) the debts, the debtors. Here we think: student debt.[ii]
Release the earth from cultivation and profit (let it rest!)
Release the land to its original inhabitants
(After all, it belongs not to you but to God anyway)
Release the oil – leave it in the ground.
Release the water, decommodify it; see it as gift and right.
Release privilege and supremacy, heteronormity, domination – let them all go.
But also, release our lives
“To save one’s life is to lose it, to loose your life for my sake is to find it.”
To let go of, to release our lives, is to be free even to die – which turns out to be the basis for every other freedom. To be free to die is to be free to risk position, reputation, career, portfolio. It grants the freedom to take big risks and small ones. This is the very ethic we require in the present moment. And we’re going to need it inside corporate headquarters and scientific labs, on neighborhood streets and inside sanctuaries. In classrooms, courtrooms and government bureaucracies, we need folks free to break ranks and mindsets, to act humanly and with freedom.
As Thomas Merton said to Jim Forest: When you’re doing this kind of work, let go of results, release even them. At a point where we need massive structural and policy changes, this would seem a strange admonition. But think of Gandhi – who urged the satyagrahi (Moslem and Hindu truth warriors) to practice “nonattachment to results,” to make their action a gift, a prayerful act of worship, for its own sake. And yet that was the freedom which undergirded a nonviolent army, one that confronted and brought down and empire.
I have a story…Fifty years ago, in fact two weeks after my graduation from NCC, the New York Times released the Pentagon Papers, a massive store of documents telling the truth about the US war in Vietnam, exposing the Big Lie that was being told by the administration…It was an act of conscience on the part of Daniel Ellsberg, an employee inside the Rand Corporation, then contracted by CIA to do military and social analysis. How did he come to that freedom and decision?
Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a pacifist and activist, in Detroit and internationally, tells a version of an answer. Gumbleton is an advocate for canonization of Franz Jaeggerstatter as a saint and martyr. Jaeggerstatter was an Austrian peasant during the German Anschluss who was drafted into Hitler’s army. Because of his Catholic faith, he refused induction. His family, his neighbors, the leaders of his little town, even his priest urged him to cooperate, saying his act would make no difference in the war and no one would ever even hear about it. But, as recounted in a series of letters, he couldn’t violate his understanding of the gospel and was beheaded August 9, 1947.
But then… Gordon Zahn, an author doing research about Catholic resistance to Hitler, stumbled upon his letters. Intrigued, he undertook interviews of family and townsfolk and ended up writing the book, In Solitary Witness publishing the correspondence and giving an account of his death and life.
That book would fall into Daniel Ellsberg’s hands just at the point he was struggling with the decision to release the Pentagon Papers. It was among the nudges of the Spirit which confirmed him in the act.
So… an otherwise nameless peasant in the mountains of Austria is executed in obscurity and his witness ends up in a spiritual chain of events that helps end the US war in SE Asia. It’s almost like evidence for the claim that God has entered history. In 2007 he was declared a martyr by the Catholic church and beatified toward sainthood, so his story will spiral forward.
I had a similar moment in my own life. In fact, just blocks from here. It revolved around the state assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. My life pivots on that moment. I remember exactly where I was in Koehler South dorm when I got the news over the lounge TV. I fled to a phone booth, called m folks in Detroit, and sobbed into the receiver.
The previous fall I’d played Cardinal football for NCC (with other folks in the room), starting as a defensive cornerback, and also behind an All-Conferrence wide receiver. I loved the game and my teammates, – but it suddenly appeared in a different light in terms of time and commitment. I was suffering a vocational shift. Telling Coach McAlister that I was quitting and why was one of the hardest things of my NCC experience, but also the most important in terms of concrete decisions, vocational ethics, and the course of my life.
I can’t conclude without returning to the Monk’s last line to our young activist in the reading, “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” He says it becomes less and less a matter of ideas, ideology, abstractions, or even principles, but about concrete and particular people.
A group of us once intuitively enacted this admonition. As a liturgical protest, we walked the Easter Vigil liturgy onto a SAC base, cutting the barbed wire fence and processing several miles down the B-52 runway and completing the eucharistic communion at gun point at the open gates of the high security area. But we’d begun the service at a cabin in the woods, where during readings and intercessions we made an altar cloth, writing on it the names of those on whose behalf we were acting: soup kitchen and hospitality guests, favella residents, children, friends, communities by name. For communion it was that which we spread on the runway when we scattered our own blood from bottles, to literalize the gifts of bread and wine that we brought. Our intentions were very concrete. So.
If we are protesting police violence, who in particular are we protecting from the knee on the neck or the bullet in the back?
If I am vigiling and working on immigration justice, who are the undocumented folks I know and intercede for
If I am joining or supporting sacred land and water protectors, at Endbridge Line 3, say, with whom am I in relationship? To whose leadership do I look? For that matter, what is my relationship to earth, to a place I love, of a river I wade, or a tree I sit beneath to pray and be, by it, prayed?
Who are the children whose future I fear for, year for? Call them by name.
But more. Merton is ultimately talking as well about fiends, about relationships. He’s urging movement as community, concretely beloved.
Colleges, perhaps even as institutions, but especially as communities through time, run on such relationships. We are reminded so when we come home like this. I am.
Jesus shifts everything at the last supper when he says, from now on I call you, not servants, not disciples, not followers, not students, but friends.
Thank you. And bless you, dear friends.
[i] More than once I took occasion to outline for her the difference in biblical language between two words for time in Greek. One was chronos which is sequential, clock and calendar time as in chronology or chronic; whereas Kairos, is time as fullness or ripeness, the opportune time for action – eventually theologized to mean the opening for God to act, the coincidence of time and eternity as it were. But no, she wasn’t letting go of the clock and she had the authority of an elder to make it stick.
[ii] In the midst of preaching I was tempted to expand this. In the U.S. the financial industry had become very aggressive in marketing debt – including by the privatization of student borrowing. In consequence students choose majors and programs less on the basis of vocational passion and more on which support the most lucrative careers. And – debt holds them in bondage to career tracks and jobs which serve the financial industry by meeting their debt payments.