October 8, 1999
Presbytery of Yukon
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Tonight is a night of celebration. First, the Presbytery of the Yukon is 100 years old, and second, we are on the eve of the new millennium. This is the last meeting of the Yukon Presbytery to be held in the 20th Century.
More than usual, we need to look to our past, get a firm footing in the present, and move into our future - whatever that may turn out to be. My sermon comes in two parts - Part I and Part II, the past and the future. At our celebration in July, I offered some observations concerning our history. Perhaps, I can condense them a bit tonight.
Part I: The Past
For example, we should remember that the Presbyterian Church did not begin in 1877 when Amanda McFarland and Sheldon Jackson arrived in Wrangell. For our beginnings as a denomination we must go back more than 450 years.
Our form of Christian worship was conceived during the years leading up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a time of great political and religious upheaval. Our founder, John Knox became a Catholic priest in 1536, and by 1540 found himself a follower of the Protestant reformer George Wishart.
Six years later Wishart was burned at the stake. The Reformers retaliated by assassinating the cardinal responsible for his murder and seizing St. Andrew's Castle. And we've been acting the same way ever since, as we'll learn later in the sermon. Knox and others were captured and sent to France as galley slaves. Three years later, Knox was able to return to England and later Scotland.
During the twenty years that followed, through the reigns of both Catholic Queen Mary and Anglican Queen Elizabeth, Knox continued his religious and political work. The Scottish Parliament made Presbyterianism the state religion in 1560.
There continued to be much conflict in the British Isles. By the mid-1600s, many Presbyterians of Scottish and Scotch-Irish descent decided it was time to take their faith and their lives somewhere else - and that somewhere else was America. The first Presbyterian congregation was established on Long Island in 1640.
Presbyterians immediately began exerting a force on Colonial, and later United States politics much greater than our numbers would predict. We contributed our structure to American government; we established schools and universities, including those for Native American children; the focus of our faith led us to lobby for and participate in virtually every attempt at social improvement on the agenda; plus we were represented at the forward edge of every frontier - be it intellectual or geographical. In the process, we squabbled among ourselves and formed and reformed various versions of Presbyterianism, but Presbyterians we remained.
Most of this was happening on the eastern seaboard of our country, and spreading across the country from east to west. But things were happening in the Far North, as well.
The Russians sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. Many people will argue that the Russians had nothing to sell to the Americans. The land belonged to the Natives who lived here. This argument has great validity, but was not the prevailing opinion of the day. The sale was recognized; the Russians left; and the Americans moved in.
From 1867 to 1877, nothing happened. Or at least from a Presbyterian's point of view, nothing happened. Conditions among the Native people were terrible. Pleas for health care, education, religious instruction, all went unheeded until the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church held in Chicago during the summer of 1877.
Now the Presbyterian Church, especially in Alaska, has several "saints" - one is without a doubt, the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, another would be Mrs. Amanda McFarland. Also we have the Rev. S. Hall Young, and Ann Bannon, RN. There are many others, and you can read about a good number of them in The Yukon Presbyterian, for sale just outside these doors.
Sheldon Jackson was in attendance at that Chicago 1877 General Assembly. He heard about the conditions among the Natives in Alaska during that early summer meeting, and by August 10 of that same summer, he and missionary-teacher Amanda McFarland stepped off the boat in Wrangell, Alaska. This began a period of Presbyterian influence on Alaskan religious, social and political life that was a bane to some and a marvel to others. Our influence ranged from the northern most tip of the territory to the southern most tip. We established the first churches in the interior as well as in southcentral.
We exerted untold influence on education, on the provision of health care, on the politics of liquor, on the establishment of Statehood for Alaska, and the Alaska Native Land Claims effort.
During the first years, the work was centered in southeast Alaska, that which is now the Alaska Presbytery. But it was not long before the Presbyterians turned their eyes to the far north. We established the first Christian work on St. Lawrence Island and at Point Barrow in 1890.
Seven years later, Gold was reported in the Yukon - on July 17, 1897, to be specific. Our next "saint", the Rev. S. Hall Young was back home in the Presbytery of Wooster after an earlier stint in southeast Alaska from 1878 to 1888. The Home Mission Board contacted him that same summer in 1897 and Young was here by the autumn, first working in Dawson, then in Nome, up and down the Yukon River, in Fairbanks, in Cordova, and a multitude of points in between.
Two years later, Young returned to the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church. He petitioned for the establishment of a new Presbytery, a Presbytery dedicated to the northern and interior work of the church. Permission was granted and the Presbytery of Yukon was authorized.
Back in Alaska by July 26, 1899, Young and two other Presbyterian ministers met at Eagle on the Yukon, and formed the Presbytery of Yukon.
That was 100 years ago. The work continued. We continued to serve the people along the Arctic Slope and helped prepare these folks to take over their own religious and political leadership; we did the same on St. Lawrence Island.
We served the Gold Seekers of the Interior and those who came later to help build the roads and other infrastructure to make a thriving community.
Yet another "saint", the Rev. Bert Bingle arrived in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley even before the colonist farmers. He was ready when for them when they got there a few days later.
The first church in the new community along Ship Creek - Anchorage -- was Presbyterian. Presbyterians were movers and shakers during the Alaska Pipeline Ministry.
Whenever something truly significant happens in our society, the Presbyterian Church and its people are right there in the thick of it, trying to apply the Word of God to life around them.
What I am suggesting is that God has always led Presbyterians to be in the thick of it. If there is an issue or a happening facing our community or our society, we are in the middle of it - actively participating in the discussion and the squabbling that it takes to sift out differing viewpoints to discern just how and where our faith leads us to act and to be.
Sometimes we turn out to be more right than wrong, and sometimes more wrong than right. But no one will accuse us of being oblivious to the whole matter, whatever it might be.
So that is our past, a past of which I, personally, am very proud, and I hope that you are, too. But that was, indeed, all yesterday. What of today? What of tomorrow?
Part II: The Future
It's been a long, tiring, but fruitful day today. For me, it's been a long, tiring but fruitful year - a year with many changes, some terribly sad and others both invigorating and exciting. Several chapters of my life have come to a close. For one, I am now a matriarch -- oldest living woman on either side of my extended family. My mother died this past January and that portion of my earthly life labeled "childhood" is forever closed. I suppose it is about time, but it is both sad and somewhat challenging to have finally, unquestionably, attained membership in The Older Generation.
What that means is that I am responsible for myself now. I can draw upon the wisdom of my mother, but the decisions I make in the future will be my own. The financial, emotional, and spiritual resources upon which I draw will be my own, although they will include some of which I have inherited from my ancestors.
The church in Alaska is at a similar point in its history. Whereas, in the past our "parents" sent care packages from back home in New York; today we find ourselves more and more on our own. What was possible for our "parents" to do when we were younger, is no longer possible. We are grown up - and expected to support not only ourselves but our children, as well. It's a hard transition to make.
Again, on the personal level, I have come full circle in my employment status. Fifteen years ago, I was a union staff person. Then I went to seminary and became an ordained Presbyterian minister and a hospital chaplain. This June, through a number of unexpected turn of events, I once again became a union staff person, this time for the nurses'. I'm a different kind of union staff person than I was fifteen years ago, but I have come full circle.
I mention these things because I find myself, very much like the calendar and the church, on the eve of the rest of my life. It's a time for reevaluating the past, expressing gratitude for the good, and finding alternative approaches to the bad. It's a time to plan for the future - making sure that future has room for joy, gratitude, hard work, commitment and well, some fun, too.
As Yukon Presbyterians we are also on the eve of the rest of our lives. We have an incredible past. We also have a challenging present - and an undefined future. We do know that future will be full of both welcome and unwelcome changes.
Jubilee and the Third World
I'm reminded of the Jubilee promises in Leviticus. Every fifty years we are to proclaim liberty throughout the land. Everything is turned on its ear. We are to return to our ancestral lands and each to our own clan. The land itself shall be allowed to rest. Slaves shall be freed. Land shall be returned to its original owners. (Now that could present a problem.)
Jesus repeats the promises, saying he has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor -- all a part of the Jubilee theme.
"No one actually DID it," I can hear the Biblical historians murmuring. "There is not a shred of evidence that Israel ever really had a Jubilee year. Nobody's going to GIVE BACK the land they have purchased, or conquered, or just plain took. Nobody is going to set the captive free without that captive paying full price for that freedom."
You may be right. But that doesn't mean it's not a good idea.
Every fifty years or so, we even the playing field. Maybe only every thousand years or so. Either way, we are long overdue.
I don't know if you all realize that there is a worldwide movement afoot - Jubilee 2000. The underlying goal is to proclaim the release from captivity of those third world nations chained by crushing monetary debt. Some of us may have gotten ourselves into such debt once or twice on a personal level -we've borrowed so much that it is impossible to pay the bankcard payments, pay the mortgage, and buy food for our families at the same time. Usually, we find our way out. But imagine finding one's way out on a national level. Every penny of Gross National Product already spoken for before it is made.
One could argue that the nations should not have borrowed so much. They got themselves in this jam. Others could argue that the first world government and banking institutions committed immoral acts by lending money to countries which they knew could only pay back the debt by squeezing the very life out of their citizens.
Jubilee 2000 is a worldwide movement of many churches and spiritual leaders. They seek to observe the transition to a new millennium by calling for a modern Jubilee to end poverty -- with a special focus on the cancellation of the unjust debt that is crippling the economies of Third World nations. The Presbyterian Church USA is very much among those denominations that have pledged support to the movement.
But this is not just a religious ideal. Forgiving this third world debt makes good economic sense, such good economic sense that the seven most wealthy nations in the world - the United States, England, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, meeting as the G7 nations this past June, spoke out in support of worldwide debt relief for impoverished countries.
Called the Cologne Debt Initiative, the nations issued a statement:
· Promising to cancel the debts of some 33 impoverished countries.
· Recognizing a clear connection between debt cancellation and poverty reduction and sustainable development, and
· affirming the importance of the people themselves participating in the development and financial decisions affecting their future.
Some folks don't believe the initiative goes far enough, but you can read up on that on your own. This is Jubilee2000 on the global level.
How does Jubilee2000 translate to Alaska?
You might remember that you elected me as your delegate to the Alaska Christian Conference last spring. And as such, I have been attending a bunch of meetings. The Alaska Christian Conference hopes to make Jubilee2000 the theme for the organization's next two years - with a focus on Alaska. The ACC will be calling all churches, religious and spiritual communities and people of good will to work together to:
· Join with the worldwide movement of Jubilee 2000;
· Promote reconciliation among all Alaskans. A reconciliation that can only be based in justice for Alaska Natives, recognizing their God given authority and the right to a subsistence priority in Alaska;
· Call all Alaskans to good stewardship of our personal and state resources, and
· Celebrate together our life in the Good News.
Episcopal Bishop Mark MacDonald, president of ACC, is taking the lead in this effort.
Yes, we are all citizens of the world. But it's one thing to think of the Jubilee message as applying to New York City bankers and people in Uganda. It's another thing to think of Serbians and Albanians attempting to return to the land of their forefathers, when the forefathers were fighting over the same land centuries ago.
But its getting a whole lot closer to home to think about sports fisherman and subsistence families in Alaska fighting over the use of this land right here, today - or at least they were fighting last week. So what would Jubilee2000 mean in Alaska?
Well, for one thing we would get this subsistence issue settled - with a preference for the people who have lived on and depended upon this land and its resources for generations.
The subsistence situation in Alaska today is heresy. Our so-called leaders would rather ensure the perceived rights of persons seeking recreational opportunities than protect the food supply and economic structure of whole communities.
All is not lost. Alaska can redeem herself eventually. But history will record the shame of the present moment.
As individuals we might not be able to do much about Bosnia or East Timor. But Presbyterians have always exerted a great deal of influence in Alaska. I believe the Lord will eventually hold us accountable for our decisions regarding subsistence and rural preference in Alaska. I really do.
Jubilee in Ireland
As Presbyterians, where else could we, or should we, exert more influence that we probably are doing now? Where else would we have a moral responsibility to exert that influence? As the millennium approaches, what means the command,
"Each of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan."
We really can't do that, can we? Most of us, those of us who are not Alaskan Natives, are from somewhere else or our relatives are from way far away. We can't return to our family property - our families and their properties are long gone.
And my own clan? Just who is my clan? Tonight, my clan is you, and other Presbyterians. If I can't physically return to my ancient place of origin, if I can't physically return to my own clan, I can return spiritually and emotionally to the place from which my faith tradition sprang. For many of us, that exercise takes us to Scotland and/or Northern Ireland. Dare we speak of Northern Ireland?
"Each of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan."
How far back? Say 400 years? What would a year of Jubilee mean to Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants living in Northern Ireland?
Interestingly enough, when I was doing some research on the Internet last night for this sermon, I found that Irish people in both the north and the south of the Ireland were selling candles, selling CDs with special music, and taking up special collections - for the refugees - in Bosnia. The Irish would intrinsically resonate with the troubles in Bosnia.
On the same page was a story about the Rev. Mr. Ian Paisley, Presbyterian. On September 30th, Mr. Paisley called a press conference to state that the peace process had involved "underhanded negotiations" because it would deprive himself and others of the "arms that they would normally carry off duty."
Government sources denied Mr. Paisley's accusation, saying, "this is a routine weapons check. It is absolutely untrue to suggest that their personal protection weapons are being taken away." It is comforting to know that the good Reverend, now also a Member of Parliament, won't be deprived of the weapons he normally carries while off duty.
That was last week. This week, in fact in this morning's Belfast Telegraph, Rev. Paisley denounces the Patten Report, a proposal designed to make changes in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, opening it up to Irish Catholic employment and devising symbols that represent Ireland's diversity and not its painful past.
"The proposals for the future of policing in Northern Ireland will destroy the internal security of the province," the Rev Ian Paisley maintained this morning. To provide Catholic representation on a board overseeing the new police service would throw Northern Ireland "open to our enemies." He also claimed the recommendation to change the name and symbols of the police department and to stop the flying of the Union flag outside police stations were "a gross insult to the democratic people of Northern Ireland." He called for his followers to take a pledge to fight the plan's implementation at all cost.
The Good Friday Irish Peace Plan is in complete disarray. And the Reverend Paisley is NO help.
It is only fair to report that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland issued a response to the Patten Proposal, calling for general caution, and respect for those Protestant families - most particular police families -- who had lost loved ones in the struggle. The church did generally endorse the plan, however.
Would not the year 2000 be a wonderful year for an Irish Jubilee? Not only would the peoples who had shared the same land for centuries learn to live on that land together, but they would learn to forgive the agony of their shared past and look forward to the promise of an equitable peace and prosperity in the future. One would think that if the Whites and Blacks in South Africa could do it, the Celts of Ireland could figure it out.
If there were ever an international issue on which we have a responsibility to become informed, this is it. What has the Presbyterian Church USA done to support the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in the quest for peace? What part have we played in encouraging reconciliation in our war torn spiritual homeland? Not enough, I would suggest.
So, that's my idea of Jubilee. You may have your own. Jubilee2000 for me would involve a massive shift in world view on a number of issues. It would provide Freedom on many levels. Certainly it would involve global economies, but also village economies and personal economies. It would involve forgiveness and reconciliation. It would involve a new beginning.
Enough. We are here to celebrate. We are here to get ready to step into the 21st century.
I will end with a similar prayer to the one I offered in July.
May we as Yukon Presbyterians:
Cherish our past,
Look to our future, and
· our commitment to the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed;
· our commitment to those with the skill, courage and where-with-all to build a society, be it through the use of our minds or through the skillful wielding of a pick and shovel;
May we never lose:
· our commitment to God; nor
· our commitment to the ideals embedded in God's Jubilee - a fresh start, a new beginning, with justice and equity for all.
May I wish every one of you a Happy Jubilee!
Amen. Click to Return to Sermon Index