Sermon: Wednesday, February 17, 2021: Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was delivered to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) for Ash Wednesday (February 17, 2021). Video of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12 / Psalm 51:1-17 / 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 / Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today is day fourteen of a hunger strike taking place here in Chicago, organized by a group of activists who hope to block the opening of a new industrial metal recycling facility on the Southeast side. The strikers are students, teachers, and residents of neighborhoods that have been impacted for decades, for generations, by the deadly byproducts of heavy industry. 

An air quality report conducted by the City of Chicago last summer confirmed what people already knew: that the South and West sides are “over-burdened” by “high concentrations of industry.” These neighborhoods are referred to as “fence-line communities,” meaning they are situated next to polluting industries or facilities. In this case, we’re talking about a community called East Side which sits along the border of Illinois and Indiana about ten miles south of LSTC. If we could dislodge our cars from the mountains of snow they’re buried under (and if we were actually in the chapel in Hyde Park instead of scattered around the world via Zoom) we could drive there in about 20 minutes. For those of you who commute from Indiana, East Side is the first Illinois neighborhood you pass through after you cross the state line, and it is home to two EPA Superfund sites, which means it is some of the most contaminated land in the nation. The ground in this and surrounding communities is filled with the toxic byproducts of the steel plants that once fueled Chicago’s economic engines until the industry moved overseas in the early 1980s: lead, chromium, cyanide, mercury, and manganese.

The new facility slated for construction would not be a steel plant. Instead, developers are planning to build a state of the art metal recycling facility with the capacity to recycle up to 1 million tons of obsolete metal products annually. These items are sometimes referred to as “end of life” metal goods on the company’s website. The concern voiced by residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, which are predominantly Black and Latinx, is that the facility will further pollute the air contributing to asthma and other respiratory illnesses that disproportionately impact families in the area. 

Fifty years ago, if you hung your laundry out to dry in these neighborhoods it would be covered in silicon dust from the steel plants by the time you were ready to take it down. Today, Chuck Stark, a science teacher at George Washington high school (located about half a mile from the proposed site for the new facility) and one of the hunger strikers, is worried that the hazardous dust particles produced by the recycling machinery “will be inhaled through the noses, throats, and lungs of [his] students.”

Today, this Ash Wednesday, I am imagining the dust produced by the process of recycling “end of life” metal goods, dust that first existed as ore extracted from the ground, from the soil beneath our feet, as I consider what it means to declare that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

10th Ward Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza has said, “Our community has demanded to be heard repeatedly, and no person should have to starve themselves in order to have their concerns be taken seriously.”

“Our community has demanded to be heard repeatedly, and no person should have to starve themselves in order to have their concerns be taken seriously.”

Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th Ward Alderman

Garza’s ward includes East Side, Hegewisch, Jeffrey Manor, South Chicago and South Deering. She is a daughter of the community, a graduate of George Washington High School, a former school counselor and Teacher’s Union leader, a member of both the Latino Caucus and the Progressive Reform Caucus who ran on a platform of cracking down on petcoke processing plants. “No person should have to starve themselves in order to have their concerns taken seriously,” she said. And yet, hunger strikes are one of the most powerful and dramatic tools at the disposal of those who practice the discipline of non-violent resistance. 

Hunger strikes played an important role in the Indian independence movement. Here in the West we are most familiar with the strikes carries out by Mahatma Gandhi, but he was not the only one. Hunger strikes were also undertaken by Bhagat Singh, Batukeshwar Dutt, and Jatin Das — whose strike led to his death. In America and Great Britain, suffragettes organizing for women’s voting rights were sometimes imprisoned and would undertake hunger strikes from jail to draw attention to their cause. Their names are not as well known, but no less important: Marion Dunlop, Mary Clarke, Alice Paul, and many others.

But we don’t need to look for examples only from the distant past. Here in Chicago, just five years ago, there was a hunger strike that lasted 34 days after the city moved to close Dyett High School, located just a mile from LSTC’s campus on the north end of Washington Park. As a result of that strike, the city changed course and kept the school open, though the protestors’ demands for a new focus on green technology and global leadership at the school were not met.

Today, this Ash Wednesday, I am holding the witness of these powerful hunger strikes in mind as I consider the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isa. 58:1) Later in that reading, the prophet confronts the leaders of the people who seek to change their fortunes by fasting without addressing the unjust power relations in their communities, echoing their words back to them, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa. 58:3a)

Isaiah contends that their fasting is insincere. They are attempting to move God to action before they have acted themselves to set right the harms they have caused. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers,” God replies. It calls to mind one of the signs carried by a protestor at a “block the permit” rally last fall that read, “3x less income. 60% more asthma.”  

Beyond his condemnation of the people’s hypocrisy, I think the prophet Isaiah is trying to help the nation reimagine who God is, how God’s power works, and what it means to be God’s people. By their fasting, the nation is attempting to create a change in their circumstances. Their logic is actually very much in keeping with the logic of the hunger strike and goes back not only to ancient Israel but to ancient Ireland and ancient India as well where fasting at the door of one who owed you a debt or who had wronged you in some way was a means of dramatizing the injustice being committed and shaming the offender into right action. Today hunger strikers here in Chicago are fasting in the virtual public square as a way of shaming the city into acknowledging that it owes them something, that it has a duty to care for and to protect them, and not to let them fall into harm’s way. In the language of organizing, we might say that the protestors have conducted an accurate power analysis and have selected tactics designed to move leaders with the power to act. For the prophet Isaiah, the problem with the people’s fast is that they have conducted a self-serving, inaccurate power analysis that denies their own culpability and responsibility for their actions.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Isaiah 58:6-7

“Not to hide yourself from your own kin.” What a poetic and painful way to describe and define sin, just one of the many ways that scripture tries to correct our self-obsessed myopia. The lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus replies with the parable of the good Samaritan. The elder brother in the parable of prodigal accuses, “this son of yours” and the father corrects him, “this brother of yours.” Sarah casts out Hagar. Jacob cheats Esau. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. Again and again throughout human history we deny the ties that bind, we hide ourselves from our own kin. We are even alienated from the very earth out of which we are created, the dust from which we were formed. God speaks to the first humans in the third chapter of Genesis saying,

“Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:17b-19

Cursed is the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles. Mercury and manganese, chromium and cyanide and lead. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. 

The end of life is, of course, also the only place where real resurrection can happen. And we do not trace the sign of the cross on our brows only with ash and soil, we also make this sign with water and with oil. Those preparing to be baptized at Easter are sometimes welcomed at the beginning of their catechesis with a rite in which the sign of the cross is made over their ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet as a reminder that the body is sacred and a place of encounter with God’s Word and God’s wisdom. In baptism the church asks us to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God, to repent of our participation and collusion with the powers of this world that rebel against God, to return to the Lord and to turn toward our neighbor, our siblings, our kin, in love — to disclose, unveil, remember that we are parts of one body. That, to use the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Which, as a consequence, means that we must also avoid the trap of scapegoating and practice love of enemy, which begins with a commitment to deep listening and honest engagement with those with whom we disagree. Southside Recycling has attempted to directly address the concerns of community activists. They have clarified that they are not a manganese or petcoke operation. They have argued that their technology will set a new standard for containing dust and noise. They have refuted the claim that they are simply relocating their operations from an affluent white community on the north side to a working class community of color on the southeast side. They have pointed to the necessity of recycling facilities to reduce the need for harmful and unsustainable mining practices. They raise questions about manufacturing and its relationship to consumer culture that implicate us all. How does our demand for steel goods drive the processes that harm our bodies and the earth’s? Do we only care about mining, steel mills, and metal recycling when the impacts land on our front steps? How far away would we need to export this problem before we could stop thinking about it? The south side? The southern hemisphere? Who is our neighbor?

It is at this level of the conversation that the need for spiritual disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, and prayer begin to make more sense. As we move away from casting all responsibility on God to fix the problems humanity has created, we discover our need for disciplines, habits of the heart, that can turn us from the most narrow self-interest to a more expansive collective interest. We begin to set limits on our consumption of goods that harm our bodies and the earth; we find ways to redistribute and make reparations for the unjust hoarding of resources God has provided for the common good; we take action to care for and protect our kin, praying with our feet when necessary. In these ways, we display what we treasure most, investing our whole lives in caring for one another, preparing ourselves for the life to come when humanity and all of creation will be restored.

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