From Lake Wobegon to the Streets of Manhattan

It must have been Garrison Keillor who observed that at the gates of heaven the Jews will carry a shofar, the Catholics a crucifix, and the Lutherans a bowl of Jello. I saw signs of that Lutheran sensibility on the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, 2014, during the Peoples Climate March. But I celebrate that sensibility.

Just about every group that I saw carried its own sign or banner or flag, announcing its identity and its presence and promoting its own commitment to this good cause: the Hare Krishnas, the Unitarians, the Service Employees International Union, 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Hindus, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, St. John’s Sunday School, Harlem, and many more.

We Lutherans carried three by two foot green signs, with “Climate Justice: For All of God’s Creation” in large letters. In tiny print, I mean really tiny print, down in the corner of our signs, if you held the sign close to your eyes, as if you were reading a newspaper, you could identify these words, “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” Onlookers might well have wondered: who are those creation justice people with those bright green signs?

I gently chided one of the Lutheran staff workers about this, a young woman from the church’s advocacy office in the nation’s capital. It turned out that she had had a hand in designing our signs. “It never crossed my mind,” she said, “to put ‘Lutherans’ in big letters. We were looking for the distinct message we wanted to convey, and we thought that ‘Climate Justice for All God’s Creation’ was it.” I agreed. Bless her. Good Lutherans always strive to announce the Truth, never to announce themselves!

On the face of it, that approach makes sense. After all, as far as I could tell, there were fewer than a hundred self-identifying Lutherans participating in that march of some 310,000 souls. And we were to make a big deal about our identity? Be that as it may, I was proud (a non-Lutheran sentiment, I know) to be carrying my own modest sign. Why? Because we had got it right. We had left Lake Wobegon and headed for the streets of Manhattan.

Consider the Truth of the Gospel Procession. The Mass for Creation I attended at 8:45 a.m. that Sunday morning at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Manhattan, was replete with processions, even though it was a low Mass: from the baptismal pool to the Table, from the Table, with the bread and wine, down into the midst of the people, from the pews moving to meet the ministers of the Eucharist, from that whole place of assembly – all together now, passing near the baptismal pool, making the sign of the Cross with the water along the way – to a meeting room, for instructions and coffee. Then we continued processing out into the streets of Manhattan.

St. Peter’s does it all the more dramatically during the great Mass of the Easter Vigil. For a segment of the Scripture readings during that high liturgy, the whole congregation processes out of the sanctuary right on to the busy sidewalks of midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night. There, led by a processional Cross, vested clergy, and trumpets, the congregation sings Easter hymns as it marches to each corner of the block, from 54th Street and Lexington Avenue and back again. At each corner the Word of God is announced, with the help of a good electric megaphone.

Let’s hear it for the Gospel Procession! Call it a bowl of jello, if you wish. But this is the liberating Truth – unheard amidst the noise of our society as it often is — for the crowds that walk such streets at any time and for those undocumented families that pick the apples in Washington State and for those nameless workers who wash the floors and change the linens in the high-rise hotels of Hong Kong and for those Inuit Lutheran parishioners whose families have lived on the island of Shismaref in Alaska for hundreds of generations, for the first time now being flooded by rising ocean currents.

Never mind what you see. It’s all going somewhere! There’s hope for the whole creation! There’s justice, finally, for every creature! It may not look like much. What’s a modest hundred, mostly waspish Lutheran marchers compared to a huge, incredibly diverse 310,000? What’s a mere 310,000 marchers compared to the upwards of 13 million citizens who live in greater New York City? What’s a New York City committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared to the whole nation of India now planning to add 455 coal-fired plants for electricity in the next few years?

The point, for Lutherans at least, is this. Open the sanctuary doors and get that Gospel procession out on to the streets. Never mind if others think that you’re carrying jello. In fact, by faith alone we’re carrying the Gospel Truth. There’s hope for every creature! That’s what we’ve been called to announce, in the midst of all the other countless and likewise called groups and communities and organizations who also care about the good Earth and all its inhabitants.

I saw one sign: “Atheists for Climate Justice.” I have no doubt that they were called by God to be there. For us Lutherans, I say: whatever else others might be saying or doing, bring your Jello to the march. Call it our bowls of compassion.

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