We must love one another or die.
Defenseless under the night Our world in stupor lies. Yet dotted everywhere Ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages. May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same negation and despair Show an affirming flame. –By W. H. Auden
I first met Judge Ackerson on Halloween in 1999. It was 11 years into my three decades of service as pastor of Messiah, and about a year and a quarter after Messiah’s building had been struck by lightning and was destroyed by the resulting fire. This would have been 17 years, or not quite halfway through his 36-1/2 years of service on the bench in Hibbing.
I know the exact date I met him because that was the year that Halloween fell on a Sunday. As some of you may know, Oct. 31 for Lutherans is not just Halloween, but also the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses against the church’s sale of indulgences in 1517. We Lutherans celebrate what we call the Reformation on the last Sunday of October, which in 1999 was Oct. 31. I had decided to dress up like a hunter for my sermon.
I have forgotten what my point was, making some connection between Halloween, the Reformation, and the impending holy season of deer hunting. But there I was, dressing up in hunter’s orange, preaching under a gun rack and a bingo board at the Mountain Iron Senior Center where Messiah was worshiping in those days. When I looked up and saw Judge Ackerson and his wife attending for the first time, I felt a little foolish. I had heard from his friend Terry Aronson that this was a very thoughtful man with a deep faith, impressive intellect, open to what Christians can learn from other religious traditions. Moreover, he was a judge. And there I was dressing up for Halloween on Reformation Sunday.
For whatever reason he and his wife Barb came back.
Later Dave would say that he was drawn to Messiah like a moth is drawn to flame. He was drawn to a church that had caught on fire, and who, as a result of that fire, had no building. He was drawn to it as a kind of hidden treasure. Yet, despite his disappointment when we moved forward with a new building on a very visible, not secret location along Highway 169, he and Barb kept coming.
Early on, I recognized that a fire also burned in him. He might have been a moth, but he also carried a flame.
Fast forward to April of 2001. Messiah had begun worshiping and meeting in the unfinished new church building. Judge Ackerson was now not only a member of Messiah, but a member of the church council. That night, the council set up a table for its meeting on the bare concrete floor in the narthex. It was Dave’s turn to do the devotions at the beginning of the meeting.
The night before, he called me to get my okay for him to focus the devotions on the recent ordination of Anita Hill at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. Her ordination was “irregular” and not recognized by the ELCA, because it had taken place in disobedience to the ELCA policy at the time. At the end of his devotions, he proposed that our council send a letter to the presiding bishop of the ELCA expressing our support for her ordination.
Until that night, we had never discussed the ordination of partnered gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender people.
Thus began a long journey at Messiah which led to the congregation becoming the first small town congregation in the upper Midwest to adopt a welcome statement explicitly welcoming people whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity. “It’s a matter of justice,” he would often say. Justice was not just a principle to Dave, nor was it just a law or a courtroom transaction.
It was a fire.
Like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites by night on their journey through the wilderness to a new land, the fire of justice led us into the dark unknown. It led us to the reinstatement of Ellen Taube to the ELCA clergy roster. It opened our doors to a launch party for Minnesotans United for All Families. It made it possible for me to officiate at same gender weddings beginning in 2013. The wilderness contained dangers, but a fire lit the way. Dave’s passion for justice was at the heart of our journey.
Justice is a communal enterprise.
For us as a congregation, it was deeply personal, as personal as specific relationships with specific people in our midst who were gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, whose lives become part of ours. Exclusion was unthinkable. Justice making was a process of embracing and restoring relationship.
At the same time, the fire was not confined to specific people. Justice is a flame, and as a flame, it does not just light the way. It burns in us, in our bones, and will not stop burning, even when specific relationships are affirmed, restored.
Several years ago, while preparing for a sermon, I stumbled on the etymology of the word anger. Our word, anger, comes from angr, an Old Norse word which meant grief. This was a linguistic revelation. At the heart of anger is grief, a broken heart, broken by brokenness, broken for love for that which cries out for wholeness. This is why anger, angr marks people with the kind of fire that burns in Judge Ackerson. I saw those sparks in him. He burned with a flame which is grief and outrage at injustice from which he could not walk away and could not stay neutral.
How did he do it? How could that fire not burn out? How could it not burn him out? Hour after hour and day after day in the courtroom, so much suffering, so much brokenness, and a justice system that in so many ways cannot live up to its own name.
In the long journey that he and I and others shared at Messiah, we also discovered something else: that justice is not about being right. Being right is about yourself and your opinions. Being just is about relationships of mutual respect, of wholeness making. Justice honors the other, whoever the other is. It is a communal enterprise of commitment to the common good.
I have never understood the phrase “Bring the criminal to justice,” not because legal accountability for one’s actions does not matter, but because once we need to pass a guilty verdict, we are identifying a failure of justice rather than the exercise of it, the absence of it rather than its presence.
Common good justice recognizes the degree to which our lives are a shared undertaking in a shared world. Justice is a person, or a community, or a nation, or an ecosystem, being made whole. The whole earth creation cries out for justice, for what is broken to be repaired, for who and what is excluded to be included. The moral universe encompasses even more than we hominids. It includes the whole community of life.
Common good, common commitment. If we are angry, perhaps we are grieving, and that grief is not despair. We need each other to reignite the fire of justice burning in our bones, for each person, for all the earth. Thank you, Dave, for doing so for me, over and over. Thank you for your companionship in an almost ferocious passion, part grief, part outrage, burning with a light that does not go out.
Once a moth, always a moth. The flame keeps burning, but will not burn you out.
Retirement celebration remarks by Judge David Ackerson’s long-term pastor, Kristin M. Foster.