Scenes from a Redneck Street Funeral

Pitbulls
babies
and Skynyrd
in the sanctuary

Cigarette smoke
self-medicating mourners
and
one guy wrenching on a broke down van
in the church parking lot

Lipstick
flip flops
switchblades
the shakes
stuff lots more people would wear to a funeral
if they could get away with it

I never met you but I know your wife and your street family
so
I’m here too me and my kid

We picked up a friend with one leg on our way
he got out of the hospital three weeks ago
still bandaged up at the knee
he didn’t want to see anybody when we pulled up he said
“just drop me in the back
someplace not too public
I don’t want to talk to anybody
I don’t go to these things”
he used to collect on street debts
been hiding out some since the surgery

There’s other amputees here
one young-ish Native guy missing an arm
who talked about how you protected him
another, even younger (limbs intact), said he got in a fight once
at the fair when
suddenly
“I felt like I was superman– there I was flying through
the air
because he had picked me up outta there
by my belt!”
people cracked up
some said “me too
he did that with me too”

More tattoos here than I’ve seen in church before
even hipster church
and these tattoos
have seen
a lot
more
sun
a lot
more
prison
that’s where most of them
were dreamed and drawn

Many many
women here
told stories about you protecting them
from other men
some
mentioned your own temper
all are grieving
all of it’s true

We had to fundraise so your family could collect your ashes
we had to hit the florist up for a donated arrangement
your street kids already threw you one memorial
on the spot
where you died
on the day you died
because getting a church space
getting your remains back
getting food for the reception
getting flowers
getting your picture printed up on a card
it all costs money
costs so much money
costs too much money
there was no guarantee we could get it
but we got it
but in the meantime
it doesn’t cost money to build a wooden cross
out of stolen pallets
it doesn’t cost money to build a bonfire
if you know how to live off the land
it doesn’t cost much
to pour out a fifth
these streets
up and emptied all their pockets for you
every nickel
every scrap
every ounce of every kind of back alley comfort

Good bad and ugly
you gave this crowd
all of yourself
you gave this crowd
the shirt off your back
the tarp over your head
the very mixed blessing of your fists depending on the terms
the hyper-vigilance and non-judgment of your protectiveness in a heroin town
the skills you knew for surviving the winter outside
I have seen these same hard hollow young men
many times before
in many bad situations that haunted me afterwards
I have never seen them weep until now
I have never seen them give a woman flowers until today
bouquets plucked from someone else’s yard, delicately arranged in used plastic bottles
presented on bended knee
to your wife
who looks both ravaged
and radiant
her hair done
a new color

My son is ten months old
he loves the whole event
(except for the smaller yipping dogs)
he loves the big dogs
he loves the big emotions
he loves the big music
he loves the light coming through the church glass
he loves to curl his head shy into my shoulder while smiling at the young widows
and the mothers whose own children have been taken away
and the guys who never get a chance to be soft and silly with another human except
once in a blue moon
someone else’s baby

I went to get my friend with the one leg when I was leaving the reception
in the church basement
he was sitting eating with a few people
he was laughing
he said “I’d like to hang out here for a while
I’ll ask the pastor
for a ride back to my motel
I want to stay”

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Sermon: Easter Vigil 2017

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*Delivered at Chaplains on the Harbor, Westport WA on April 15, 2017*

“Haunt Rome Until It Falls”

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Happy Easter! Jesus lives! What a guy!
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The same Jesus who was just arrested on Thursday, beaten by the police, and executed by his government on Friday in the same way they killed rebellious slaves– he’s not dead anymore. The most powerful, brutal empire in world history couldn’t keep him in the grave. He was poor, he was homeless, people called him names, he was a nobody to the rich and powerful– until he started shaking things up, telling them to go sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. That’s when they decided they had to make him a nobody– permanently. They tried. They failed! He got up out of the ground, praise God!
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He leaves the tomb empty, and where’s the first place he goes? Does anyone remember, from the story we just heard? Yes– he goes to meet two of his closest friends, Mary and Mary. The ones who stuck with him to the bitter end, who saw him killed, who must have been terrified but (unlike all the men disciples) refused to run away.  He comes back to them, and what does he tell them? “Don’t be afraid. Tell my brothers the same.” He wants them to keep going, to not quit. They still have a job to do, even though he’s gone– to keep up the work he started with them of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, binding up the brokenhearted.
_

This part is really important. That holy work doesn’t begin and end with Jesus. Maybe it begins with Jesus, but then he hands it off to the Marys, who hand it on down to someone else and each generation picks it up until it gets to us. Meanwhile, we keep losing a lot of incredible children of God in each generation– we keep losing wonderful people to the same cruelty that killed Jesus. But when we say Jesus lives, and Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and dead, we also mean that every beautiful life stolen away from us by poverty, war, and state violence will also come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

_

Spencer Williams, a homeless Native elder living on the streets of Aberdeen who was killed after being hit by a car– with no news coverage or investigation into his death– will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
_
Sarah Palmer, a 35 year old disabled woman living in an adult group home who was tazed to death by the Hoquiam police, will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
_
Zach Vester, 24 years old, who died of pneumonia after being turned away from Aberdeen and Chehalis hospitals because they profiled him as drug user, will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
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Brooke Sandback, 35, chased into the Hoquiam River by police and drowned, will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
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Betty Murray and Pa Bailey, both evicted from the Harvard apartments in Aberdeen while they were dying of cancer, will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
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Every kid dead from an overdose because it’s easier to get heroin than it is to get housing or a job or decent health care in Grays Harbor County will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
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Every poor person killed by rich people’s wars will come again to judge the living and the dead.
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They will come again because we will carry them with us. Just as we carry Jesus with us. They will come to us in the times we are afraid, the times we feel like we can’t go on, the times we feel ashamed and humiliated– just like Jesus came again to Mary and Mary.
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We will raise them from the dead every single time we see a cop beating on a homeless person and we say NO.
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We will raise them from the dead every time we see somebody being treated wrong or discriminated against simply because they’ve used drugs.
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We stand shoulder to shoulder with the souls of all our beloved dead, especially the ones gone too soon, every time we stand up against this system that makes the rich so very rich and keeps the poor hungry, sick and dying. We’ll raise them up every time we insist that it doesn’t have to be this way, and every time we do our own part to make it different.
_
Easter means: as long as we’re here together and still doing the work of God, still demanding some good news for poor people, the empire hasn’t won yet. As long as we’re choosing to pick up the work left to us by Jesus, Mary, Mary, Spencer, Sarah, Zach, Brooke, Betty, Pa and so many others– the resurrection is a flesh and blood truth. It’s hard work. You all know this. I know you know it, because we’ve done it together. It’s hard to stand up for the rights of homeless people when everybody is calling you names, threatening you, even assaulting you. It’s hard to work together as a community when we don’t agree with each other and when we all make mistakes. But I see you, and I see how you keep doing it here. It’s the very same work Jesus did. So I know he lives. I know the resurrection is real. And I know we’re going to keep working and together, with Jesus and all our beloved dead pushing us forward, we’re gonna haunt the hell out of this system until the day when nobody’s poor. When nobody’s homeless. When nobody’s suffering from violence. When everybody, the world over, has what they need to live a good life.
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Sermon: Maundy Thursday 2017

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“Christ of Maryknoll,” Robert Lentz

*Delivered at Chaplains on the Harbor, Westport WA on April 13, 2017*

“Jesus the Felon”

Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It gets a little lost in all the talk about washing feet, but what’s also happening in the Gospel reading today is that Jesus is having dinner with his friends. For the last time ever. This is the story we call the last supper. Does anybody remember what happens after this? That’s right, he’s killed. And what happens before that? He’s arrested. He’s arrested and he goes to jail. Has anybody here ever been to jail, or have loved ones who’ve been to jail? That’s a lot of us. What are the kinds of words you hear others use when they talk about people in jail? “Criminal.” “Junkie.” “Predator,” “super predator.” These are not kind words.
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Jesus was also called names like this. People who didn’t like him called him a drunk, and a glutton (which is kind of an old-fashioned way of calling somebody a freeloader). He was accused, especially by the powerful and the respectable people in his society, of rubbing elbows with all the wrong people– tax collectors, sex workers, sinners. If he were around today, walking the streets of Grays Harbor County, he’d probably get called a tweaker and a junkie and be accused of hanging out with all the worst people. And to top it all off, almost as if to prove all his haters right, then Jesus goes and gets himself arrested. You can almost hear them gossip: “We knew it! We knew he was trouble, we knew he was a low life.”
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A lot of people, a lot of Christians, get nervous about this part of Jesus’ life: Jesus the prisoner, Jesus the felon. A lot of people try to dress it up. They say “Well he wasn’t really like all the other cons,” that somehow he was different, or better, or more special. But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus is just one of them. He’s a leader, he’s a healer, he’s a teacher– and he’s a jailbird through and through. His good qualities aren’t what set him apart; many prisoners have good qualities. What sets him apart is that he’s the Son of God– he’s God’s proof that when God comes to earth, God takes sides. God takes sides with the poor. God takes sides with the prisoners. Back in Jesus’ time, like today, prisons were full of poor people. People who couldn’t pay their debts. Slaves who stood up for themselves. Like today, in Jesus’ time rich people were very rich and there weren’t that many of them. Meanwhile, just about everybody was poor. It was a lot easier to end up on the wrong side of the law than it was to get out of poverty. And Jesus, who was working not just to get himself but everybody he met out of poverty, ended up way out on the wrong side of the law.
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We tend to talk about Jesus like he came down from on high to fix the outcasts. That’s not what the Bible shows us. His whole life, he was an outcast himself. He was born in a barn because nobody would take in his homeless family. Then, when he was a baby, his family became refugees as they fled across the border to Egypt running from King Herod. He was a disruptive, mouthy kid who ran off from his parents, made a lot of noise in the synagogue, and created a street family for himself that was just as important to him as his blood family. A street family he loved and cared for, even as the police and the powerful were hunting him down.
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Something I like about today’s Gospel story, weird as the foot-washing stuff can seem to us all these years later, is the way Jesus shows us how to be a “servant leader.” I don’t mean he was putting on a show about how humble he was, either. I mean he was a leader from a class of people who worked as servants, or even slaves– he was a leader who came from poor people. I think that’s important because we don’t look at poor people as leaders often enough. Everybody’s always looking for somebody rich and powerful to come down and fix our communities. They’re not coming. They’re never coming. All we have is us. All we have is each other. And what Jesus’ life shows us is: that’s actually everything we need. If we can work together, if we can come together across the divisions that keep poor people hating on each other and instead start taking care of each other, start organizing together to make the changes we need– we could be unstoppable.
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We do real well at taking care of each other here, in this community. I think we’re onto something. The foot-washing, yes, it’s a little weird and awkward but it’s a symbol for the real, concrete ways we take care of one another. We feed each other. We shelter each other. This winter, our young homeless folks spent their food stamps to buy baby formula for a mother and child who were sleeping here. Over the holidays, our overnight guests pooled their turkeys  from the food bank to throw an incredible feast for this whole community. And we all– this group here– have extended that love and care into the local jails– where Jesus the prisoner can still be found today, in the kindness the prisoners there show each other under really bad conditions.
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I’m gonna finish with a story, a jail story, about us. Last year we were doing the School of Hard Knocks on Friday afternoons. Each month we’d get together and just have conversation about hard topics that are real in our community. The first month, we were talking about jail. And at the very first class, this group decided it was important that we send a letter of love and support to all the people Rev. Sarah visits. It was a simple letter: we said we’re thinking of them, praying for them, they’re always welcome at our place when they get out, that we wish we could give them a better world– one where it’s easier to get a decent job and a good education than it is to land in jail. Sarah mailed that letter out. One young guy named Zach Vester got a copy. He was in lockdown at the Grays Harbor County jail then. We found out later: in the middle of the night when the guards couldn’t hear, Zach was shouting the words of that letter through the metal toilet drain in his cell, so that it would echo into the cells of everybody else in lockdown. He was shouting your prayers, your words of encouragement, your love so that everybody could hear it. When I think of servant leaders, of Jesus the prisoner’s style of leadership, I think about Zach. And I think about all the folks here who wrote him that letter.
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Zach died this fall. He was twenty-four. Two hospitals turned him away before he landed at St. Pete’s in Olympia, where he died of pneumonia. They turned him away because they said he was a “drug seeker.” They didn’t know he was a leader. They didn’t know he was brave, or funny, or smart, or honest. But you all did. When you sent in that letter, you knew there were people locked up in there who deserved better. Who deserved love, prayers, a future. You knew they deserved that because they’re children of God, the same as Jesus. Keep trusting that. Trust him. Trust Jesus the prisoner.
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Sermon: Third Sunday after the Epiphany 2017

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*Delivered at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle WA, on January 22, 2017*

“The God of Secrecy”

Text: Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?

For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.

Even now he lifts up my head
above my enemies round about me….

You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.”
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

 

“He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling.” Listen to that. Hide me. What does it mean to be hidden away by God?

Where does the God of shelter, hiddenness, and secrecy fit into this moment? There is so much noise. There is so much blaring. There is the wholly understandable inclination many of us are feeling, myself included, to declare to the world: THIS IS WHO I AM, THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE, THIS IS WHERE I STAND, THIS IS WHAT I WILL DEFEND.

Our clarity on all these points is vital. We are living in dangerous times. We must remain clear. We must constantly remind ourselves and one another of what we know to be real, true, and good.

And now we must do this while also honoring the God of secrecy. The God who hides the oppressed and vulnerable in their day of trouble. Now is the time for us to start praying and discerning seriously our role, collectively, in providing sanctuary for those who need it.

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The Poor People’s Campaign & Grays Harbor County

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Hank Adams of Grays Harbor County (second from left) at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

These are my remarks from our “State of the Streets” event held in Westport WA on July 14th 2016 when Chaplains on the Harbor announced our official endorsement of the New Poor People’s Campaign.

Almost fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started organizing a campaign he called the Poor People’s Campaign. It was the last campaign of his life, and the one he died working on, but we don’t hear too much about it when people talk about Martin Luther King today.

The Poor People’s Campaign was for people of all races who were facing poverty issues like hunger, failing schools, unemployment, bad housing conditions, and mistreatment by the police. King spent years doing important work for the civil rights of Black people but even as he saw changes being made there, he saw that poor Black people, who made up the majority of the Black community, were being left behind. He put it like this: “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?”

So he started studying and speaking out more on this question of poverty. He realized that it was such a large problem, impacting so many people across the country, that he would have to bring a large group of people together to fight it. This is why King called for a Poor People’s Campaign. He traveled to cities like Detroit and New York but also to small towns in rural states like Mississippi and West Virginia, and he got in touch with poor Blacks, poor whites, poor Latinos, poor Natives, and poor Asians who were all facing the same fundamental problems and trying to make change.

King asked for these leaders to come together– to travel from around the country and meet up in Washington DC. He was assassinated in Memphis TN just one month before they had all agreed to gather. The rest of the people involved decided they had to move forward with the campaign, that it’s what King would have wanted, so they converged on Washington DC in May of 1968. When they got there, they set up a tent city on the National Mall.  They stayed for over a month, three thousand of them, banging on the doors of all the politicians’ offices, telling their stories and demanding change: they demanded the government set aside $30 billion to fight poverty, full employment, guaranteed income, and the construction of 500,00 units of low-income housing every year. They also set up their own internal structure– they had an education tent, a childcare tent, a health care tent, a food tent, a psychiatrist and their own city hall. Together, in that camp, they were able to make a better life for themselves than most of them had back home. They called their tent city “Resurrection City” and said it was “the city where you don’t pay taxes, where there’s no police brutality and you don’t go to jail.

Resurrection City lasted six weeks until the police came and tore it down. Without Martin Luther King around, many of the other leaders struggled to come up with clear plans and work together. But we’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign soon, and there are more groups than ever around the country facing these same issues. There are about 1 million more poor people now than there were in 1968. So we, here at Chaplains on the Harbor, are getting together with people we know to help plan a New Poor People’s Campaign for today. We don’t know what it will look like yet– we don’t know if it will be a tent city in Washington DC or something different. But we are ready to try, we are inviting you all to be part of it with us, and tonight we are taking the first and most important step in that direction, which is speaking out and telling our own stories about this stuff.

It’s hard to think about yourself as a leader when you are poor, when you are struggling. It’s hard to imagine yourself as the next Martin Luther King. But the thing to remember is: Martin Luther King didn’t do any of this alone. In fact, he wasn’t even around when they finally got this thing off the ground. It was poor people who made it happen. Some of them could not read, some of them were disabled, some of them were sick, and many of them had been to jail. It’s them that made this thing happen, and here in 2016, we believe it’ll be those same people who make things happen. There was a group from Washington State that went to the Poor People’s Campaign, and there was even a guy from Grays Harbor County who went. He’s still alive, his name is Hank Adams, he’s a Native guy. He grew up on the Quinault reservation and went to high school in Moclips. I sent him some fan mail last year but haven’t heard back from him, so if any of you know him, put in a good word for me! But he was there. When he was only about 25 years old, he was one of the key leaders of the original Poor People’s Campaign. So if you’re struggling to make it in Grays Harbor County, this is already in your DNA. This is already part of your story. The original Poor People’s Campaign was for and by people like you and the New Poor People’s Campaign is your campaign.

I’m done talking. Let’s get some of you up and talking now, right after Bishop Rickel explains the ground rules for us.

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Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2016

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“Famine of the Word”

Text: Amos 8:1-12

This is a strange equation we find in Amos today. The Lord is so angered at those who have exploited the poor that God promises not only to bring bitterness and mourning, but also withhold the Word—so stingily that it will be, as the passage says, like a famine. A famine “of hearing the words of the Lord.”

How are we supposed to move forward in times when our world has so fallen, that God is withholding the Word as punishment for the abuses of the powerful? Why, when we need guidance the most, would God deprive us this way?

While God remains present, perhaps the Word itself—that is, God’s living teaching, or the spirit of wisdom that leads us toward acting in loving kindness—perhaps the Word itself is withheld from us when we blow it in big ways. When we have arrived as individuals and as a society to the point at which we will buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” there is something that has broken inside of us. We cannot crawl out of that pit trusting our own judgment. No. It is our own judgment that has brought us down in the first place. To return to the Word we must look beyond our own position and our own need for self-justification.

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Sermon: Fifth Sunday in Easter 2016

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Press conference of Chicago’s “Rainbow Coalition”: Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Young Lords

“Fred Hampton’s Jesus Movement”

Text: Acts 11:1-18

Among other influences, I was trained in organizing by a few leaders who came out of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. One of my mentors, Willie Baptist, came of age during the Watts Uprisings in Los Angeles. He describes this as a critical stage of his formation—watching his suffering community step up and reclaim its own streets. Several times he’s told me the story of witnessing the local neighborhood drunk, who was usually passed out in a doorway, on his feet in the middle of an intersection directing traffic during the Uprising. This is one of the images I picture when I think about resurrection, and why we bother to fight for it.

Willie has been one of the people most strongly encouraging our organizing at Chaplains on the Harbor, a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County, where our constituency is rural and 70-80% white. Willie’s enthusiasm for our work with poor whites sounds strange to a lot of people because the legacy of the Black Panthers is still poorly understood in this country. From the beginning, the Panthers—while building infrastructure, self-defense, and dignity in poor Black communities—also built alliances with other poor communities across racial lines. This was not a soft, rose-tinted neoliberal form of “celebrating diversity.” It was a series of gang alliances. It was Black Panthers visiting Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, home to poor white Appalachian migrants, to lead popular education workshops and find common ground in their shared experiences of slum housing and police violence. It was twenty-one year old Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton’s ability to organize a multiracial coalition with the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Chinese-American Red Guard, and the white Young Patriots. The Panthers did this work because they sought to end poverty, and to end poverty, they knew they needed a massive coalition of poor people—that they could never ultimately end poverty in Black communities without recruiting help and solidarity from other poor communities. The fight was and is too big for one community to wage alone. Continue reading

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