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DULUTH, 1920.
December 5, 2003
Each Friday's eMo is a meditation on the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being Tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitus, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas, the word of God came to John....
Luke 3:1-2

All those potentates, sacred and secular. So many important people. But who did the word of God come to? Weird John, who lived out in the wilderness and ate bugs.

And who was this word for? The hundreds, maybe thousands of ordinary people who flocked to the riverbank to hear him and lined up to be cleansed of their sins through baptism. The things he said to them made them understand that, whatever problems they may have had that were external in origin, they could only begin to do something about them with their own repentance. Nothing else was within their control. As nothing else is within ours.

I thought of them while scanning the headlines early this morning. A familiar name caught my eye -- Duluth doesn't make the New York Times much. And certainly not for this reason: that there was a mob lynching of three black men there in 1920.

Duluth? My mother was from Duluth. Duluth is in Minnesota, where everyone is nice and has always been nice. Large and blond and nice. That's what we are in Minnesota.

I remember asking my mother in the 1960s about racial prejudice in Minnesota when she was growing up. She didn't remember any. We didn't really have any Negroes there, she said. Well, I guess they had three. And then they had three fewer.

She was five when the lynching happened. Ten thousand people came out to see it. Men had broken into the city jail and hauled the three out.
Men? My grandfather was a man and he lived in Duluth. Was he there? Did he go? Did my grandmother go, and did they watch? Did they take my mother? We didn't really have any Negroes there.

Impossible. In Duluth? Where people went ice-fishing and iceboating, where they built warming-houses on the lake so people wouldn't freeze to death? Where my grandfather grew peonies every summer, checking them anxiously every day the year my parents were married, praying that the peonies would bloom by June 21st?

Might they have known? Might they even have seen it? Might they have known it was happening and done nothing to prevent it? There is nobody in my family left to ask. My grandmother told me many stories about Duluth when I was little, but she didn't tell me that one. They are all dead. Like the three Negroes who weren't really there.

My kind forebears. My good family. That good city, full of good people. Ordinary people. Impossible.

Anything is possible for ordinary people. Any goodness, and any evil. They can allow themselves to be led either way. They can visit the church and the killing fields on the same day. They tell themselves that it is their leaders who take them astray, but they are the ones who raise up the leaders, and they are the ones who follow them.

So the word of God doesn't always come to the leaders. It didn't come to Herod, or to Pilate, or to Annas or Caiphas. It comes to people like John. And through John, it comes to ordinary people. Turn and take responsibility for what you do, and do what you can. It will not be enough for you to bemoan this evil age. You do not control this age. But you do control yourself. Start there.
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