Seeking the Light

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

June 30, 2019

Psalm 27

This week, I made a brief trip to Detroit for my work on the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI), which is tasked by the General Assembly to engage particular corporations around issues that are important to Presbyterians. We will then make a recommendation to next summer’s General Assembly about whether to continue engaging with corporations we own stock in, hoping to continue change. Or else to divest from corporations that are unwilling to be in conversation or make any changes. Most of our work is on the engagement side. Few issues lead to divestment, although when that happens, it gets all the news.

Part of our work involves engaging the corporations, so there were talks with both GM and Ford this week. Part of our work takes us into the communities affected by these corporations, listening to the voices of people who may not have stock in the companies, but whose life is impacted, for both good and for ill, by them.

So we went to Flint, which is about 45 minutes from Detroit, and met with some people involved in responding to the water crisis. At the height of GM’s glory, Flint was the wealthiest city in the country. That is no longer the case. Jobs went away. People went away, leaving fewer people to support the tax base and the economy. Five years ago, to save money, the state govt started drawing water from the Flint river, instead of buying it from Detroit, but chose not to spend a small amount of money to ensure the water was safe. Over a year later, pipes were found to be leaching lead into the drinking water. The people of Flint, in most neighborhoods, still do not have clean water, today. They rely on bottled water.

The allowable exposure to lead by the EPA is 15 parts per billion. Flint’s water was, at one point, 7 times higher than that. Any lead exposure is too much lead exposure, because lead damage is permanent. Lead can damage the brain, kidneys, heart. It can lead to listless behavior, mental confusion, and affect physical movement and coordination. Lead, once in your body, is permanently in your body. We can’t undo this damage to these people.

No one responsible for Flint has faced responsibility. The people of Flint still don’t have their questions answered.

could hear the people of Flint singing this psalm:

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life….
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!

We trust the water in the house of the Lord is safe to drink.

After we left Flint, we met with some women who grew up in the shadow of an oil refinery on the southwest side of Detroit. As the plant grew ever closer to their neighborhood, people started facing health problems. One of the women who met with us, Emma Lockridge, said that it was in Bible study one morning, many years ago, that she realized she needed to do something. She was seeing her neighbors, her family, get sick and die. She worshiped a God who hears the cries of her people, and a God who delivers the people.

Here’s a picture Emma took from her neighborhood one night, after the refinery had expanded to process tar sands.

photo by Emma Lockridge

This refinery processes over 100,000 barrels a day, and only recently began to curb their emissions, many years after the zipcode around the plant became the most polluted area in Michigan.

A decade ago, the company bought out the white neighborhood, so that people could move away from the refinery. They have not responded to Emma’s neighborhood’s request to buy out their primarily African American neighborhood too.

I heard the lament of this psalm in the shadow of the refinery too, as these women were working for change against a giant corporation. They support each other so that they will not lose hope.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

Here’s an image of the violence the refinery is breathing out, that Emma and her neighbors are expected to breathe in:

photo by Emma Lockridge

I wondered how I would feel if the home I inherited from my parents, which they had bought in hopes of getting a piece of the American dream, was uninhabitable. It would be easy to despair.

More than the lament, however, I heard the psalm’s hope in the voices of these women.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident…..
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Most of us don’t know what it is to not be able to drink the water that comes from the tap. We breathe clean air and not clouds of corporate violence.
Yet we also know how it feels to have enemies encamped against us as the psalm describes. I’ve been with you in hospital waiting rooms, and I’ve met with you as relationships fall apart, and when the world seems dark and fearful.

And I’ve heard you live out this psalm:

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

To be able to sing out in hope as your enemies are close enough to hear your voice—that’s a remarkable thing. Sometimes shouts of joy are enough to change the heart of an opponent, but more likely it just messes with their heads. But when you raise your voice in praise when the enemies are close enough to hear, there are other people who will hear too, other people who are also being weighed down by burdens—maybe from the same ‘enemy’, maybe because of something else—but our shouts of joy and melodies to the Lord can be light for someone else.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
…..
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

don’t know how or if the imagery of this psalm, with its enemy encampments, resonates in your life right now. I’d like to pray that we never know what it is to have enemies surrounding us. But I have seen enough in my 50 years to know that there will be times when we feel the truth of this psalm.

May we keep raising our voices, both in cries for justice and in shouts of praise. The Lord is my light and my salvation. May our voices point people toward the need for justice and toward the light of God. May our voices help people seek and see the light.

Amen

(If you want more information about Emma Lockridge and her work, or want to support her work, here’s more information about Michigan United.)

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