Sermon: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost 2019

 

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The Rev. Sarah Monroe and former residents of Aberdeen’s largest homeless encampment, gathered around a camp memorial. Photo credit to Tracy Clayton.

Text: Luke 11:1-13

[Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Seattle WA]

“Praying and Laboring for the Impossible”

Good morning! It’s a blessing to be with you all this morning. Rev. Sara Fischer’s away, but she asked me to come join you today to share a little bit about the work I’m part of. My name is Aaron Scott and I’m with Chaplains on the Harbor, in rural Grays Harbor County. Drive south to Olympia and then head straight west until you hit the ocean and you will run into us, at the edge of the world.

Chaplains on the Harbor is a mission station of our diocese, cofounded by Rev. Sarah Monroe and I six years ago. She started solo, going out with a backpack full of sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes and getting to know people living in back alleys, underpasses, and encampments. That’s all we did for two solid years: meet people, eat, smoke, and build trust.

Things really snowballed from there.

We are now a congregation of around 500 poor, homeless, and incarcerated people. We do street outreach in Aberdeen, we have a community center and worshipping congregation in Westport, we operate a four acre farm in Elma, we do jail visits in Hoquiam and Montesano, we run six feeding programs a week, we host the county’s only low-barrier cold weather shelter, we distribute Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal drug), we circulate a newsletter (“The Holy Hustler”) through all the local jails and through prisons across the state, we do organizing and popular education, and we create living wage jobs—especially for people in recovery from addiction and people getting off the street. We have a staff of twelve incredible leaders, most of whom have been homeless themselves. We are in the middle of our second federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen for violating the human and constitutional rights of homeless people (we won the first one).

I want to put all that up on the shelf for a minute and walk through the Lord’s prayer—this first part of today’s Gospel reading. It’s the only prayer we have out of the mouth of Jesus that we still use regularly. It is a short one. It’s kind of punchy. And it’s anchored in a trifecta of liberation work to be done this side of heaven: daily bread, debt forgiveness, and protection from trial.

Sometimes it can be hard to see how these three things are bigger than our individual lives. But we know Jesus is a big-picture type. He was always talking about the whole of society. He’s not keen on privatizing spirituality into our discrete personal, emotional, psychological journeys. He’s just not. We often prefer him to be that way. I often prefer him to be that way. And then I read the Gospel, and I am sorely disappointed that it’s not all about me! That kingdom of God stuff is always collective, always public, always breaking through in messy, noisy, stressful, inconvenient places.

So I want to offer three big picture examples of these three asks we find in the Lord’s Prayer. Three examples of kingdom-sized helpings of daily bread, debt forgiveness, and being saved from trial.

Of those three, at Chaplains on the Harbor, we do best at daily bread. It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true. Our parish is a hungry one. When we aren’t open, people don’t eat. Period. And we know it. So every time we are open, we eat together. We eat at church. We eat after funerals. We eat after court. We eat at staff meetings. We eat while we organize. We plant food, grow food, harvest food, deliver food, and we rarely waste a single bite. When we are late opening up for lunch, there is a line of hungry people waiting to remind us of the importance of daily bread. We are a daily bread people. It’s the reason people trust us. It keeps us in touch and keeps us accountable to the work of maintaining daily relationships with people who are shut out of just about every other part of society. Our commitment to daily bread the reason we are able to get anything else done.

I have some friends in Pennsylvania, our partners in struggle through the Poor People’s Campaign. They are a scrappy, brilliant, poor and working people’s group called Put People First! PA, and they are debt forgiveness people. They’re a human rights organization, and as they will tell you, “our current campaign is for the human right to health care: everyone deserves the care they need, when they need it, without going broke. There is enough for all of us – a truly universal health care system is possible. We need to organize to get it.” They recently fundraised to pay off the medical debt of thousands of people across eighteen counties in Western Pennsylvania—raising around $16,000 to pay off over one million dollars worth of debt. My friend and mentor Nijmie Dzurinko who heads up the group calls it “a medical debt jubilee”—straight out of Deuteronomy. And they will use this debt jubilee to begin building trust with people, and bring them into the work of fighting for the human right to health care. In Jesus’ own language, Aramaic, the word for “sin” was the same as the word for “debt.” As someone who went around giving away free healthcare—especially to people who were poor, including a few who were poor specifically because they spent all their money on doctors—medical debt jubilee is right up Jesus’ alley.

In Hermitage, Tennessee you can find some people who are the “do not bring us to the time of trial” kind of people. Maybe you heard this story. On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attempted to stop a man who was driving home with his twelve-year old son in the car. The ICE agents had no local warrant—even local police confirmed there were no grounds for an arrest. And yet the agents threatened not only to arrest the man but his child as well if he did not comply with their orders. Staying inside the car with his son, the man made one phone call and almost immediately, a crowd began to gather. Immigrant rights organizers, but mostly the family’s immediate neighbors, surrounded the vehicle for hours—physically blocking ICE agents from any attempt to take the man, to separate him from his son. The neighbors filmed the ICE agents’ behavior, bringing food and water and gasoline to the vehicle so the two could remain inside it until ICE was forced to departed without them. Even after the agents were gone, prepared for the possibility that they would return, neighbors formed a human chain between the vehicle and the house to shield the man and his son as they ran from the van into their home. The neighbors of this family literally saved them from trial by keeping them out of the courts of the wicked.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts.

Save us from the time of trial.

At Chaplains on the Harbor, every single step of the way, we have been told that what we are doing—and what we seek to do, as a ministry— is impossible. We have been told that we are trying to do too much. That we are asking too much. That our demands and goals are unrealistic, unsustainable. We have frequently heard this line from local elected officials. We have heard it from pundits, from the media, from vigilantes. We have heard it from other churches, other denominations. We have sometimes heard it from our own denomination. We have even said it to each other. I have said it to myself more than once. I know the folks in Pennsylvania deal with the same thing. I believe that probably everyone everywhere pushing back against ICE deals with the same thing.

But what is this irrational demand we all share, in the end? What is this ludicrous, costly, maddening thing we are asking for?

We are asking for daily bread. For all people.

We are asking for the forgiveness of debts. For all people.

We are asking that struggling people stop being churned through trials and systems that flip a profit off our suffering and break our families—from Grays Harbor County, to Western Pennsylvania, to Hermitage TN, to the southern border and every border on earth. And we are asking that none of us be tempted into collaborating with those systems just to save our own necks or make a buck.

We are asking for all of this and we are not waiting for anyone to benevolently step down from on high and deliver it to us, gift-wrapped. We are not waiting for the task to become easier or less risky. We have already set to work at it.

We are asking for and building up the kingdom come— on earth as it is in heaven. No more than that, and certainly no less.

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Sermon: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 2019

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Text: Amos 8:1-12

[Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle WA]

“Same Sin, Different Day”

I wonder what it was Amos saw.

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
[…]
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

What did Amos see?

What did he see in the city?

What did he see at the temple, in the places of power, in the slums? What casual acts of brutality against the weak did he witness on the street corners? Which merchants did he see in the market, prioritizing a few coins over a hungry family’s survival?

I wonder about this because we make a big deal of prophets, like they have some sixth sense the rest of us lack. They don’t. There are only two things a prophet needs to do to pull off their job: they see what’s in front of them and they tell everyone about it. Anyone can do this. We can all do this. If you asked Amos, I think he would say we are all obligated to do this. We don’t need to sound pretty or poetic or well-read to be prophetic. We do need to run our mouths telling the truth about what’s happening around us, and measure that unflinchingly against what God wants.

In Aberdeen last week, where I work, the public works department began demolishing the city’s largest homeless encampment. While there is plenty of vitriol toward unhoused people in Aberdeen (and Seattle), an encampment sweep is the kind of brutality that city officials are good at making sound mundane. Their rhetoric is couched in terms of public health and safety, or public nuisance, or taxpayer concerns. It’s a big headache for the mayor but a real eyesore that somebody’s got to clean up for the sake of attracting tourism to the region, blah blah blah.

The boringness of their rhetoric intentionally obscures the violence.

We often think the prophets are the ones who sound far-fetched. Their words are so strong, their condemnations so scathing. We ask, “Is it really all that bad, Amos? Surely not everyone was selling the poor for a pair of new shoes. Try to find some balance. Focus on the positive.”

That’s not a prophet’s job. Prophets are here to pull our heads out of the sand and make us face the truths in our society and in our history that will be our collective undoing, unless we change. Prophets are here to remind us that being well-adjusted in a sick society is the deepest sickness of all.

What is the demolition of a homeless camp like? To the mayor, it’s a PR stunt in an election year. To the police chief, it’s a potential publicity nightmare. To the city attorney, it’s a pain in the rear. To local property and business owners, it’s a long-awaited cause for celebration.

To the poor, it is an apocalypse.

It is exile.

It is an act of war.

It is fourteen police cars pulling up to a small string of plywood shacks and tents just to serve the eviction notices. It is bulldozers trying to move in on structures while people are still sleeping inside them. It is watching the homestead you built with your own hands, out of the scraps and garbage other people threw away, be snatched up and crushed by a roaring excavator, against your will, with no other place to turn. In the richest country on earth.

Amos saw in his time that the present reality of the poor would be the future reality of his whole society. Famine, mourning, exploitation, death, endless wandering without rest or safety, all the flavors of doom that Amos says are coming upon his nation—they had already come for the poor. Amos lived in a deeply unequal society where some people were doing quite well for themselves and many others were living in misery. He saw that this economic system, which was the material manifestation of a moral system, would eventually be its own undoing. And we are seeing the same thing, in this stage of late capitalism in our own nation.

If we want to go where Amos is leading us, I think we have to do two things. First, we have to understand that as long as we allow poverty to exist at all, our entire society is vulnerable. Second, we have to recognize the authority of poor people. Poor people are not the problem. A society that allows poverty to exist is the problem. A society that isn’t even satisfied with poor people living in shacks, but must also relentlessly attack and displace them is the problem. In recognizing the authority of poor people, we have to listen to poor people. We have to hear homeless folks’ firsthand accounts of our cities investing in expensive militarization waged against them, instead of investing in the things that could save lives like affordable housing and healthcare. And we have to hear these accounts not only out of sympathy, but with the soul-deep awareness that we could be next.

What would Amos say if he stood at that camp on the banks of the Chehalis River last week surrounded by cop cars, construction equipment, and weeping, cussing homeless people?

“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
[…]
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.”

I think Amos would say, “Same sin, different day.”

If Amos can teach us anything, it’s that feeling sad and sorry for the poor isn’t enough. Even feeling angry on behalf of the poor isn’t enough. Doing kind, charitable acts isn’t enough. We name Amos as our prophet, but it was the words and cries and lives and deaths of the poor that prophesied to Amos himself and showed him what would inevitably come to pass for his whole society. I believe things are going to get much, much worse in our country and around the world. But if we are to have any eventual hope of turning things around and rebuilding from the ashes, we will find it among people who are already figuring out how to survive the apocalypse every day.

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Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter 2019

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Text: Acts 5:27-32

[Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Longview WA]

“The Holy Obedience of Outlaws”

Good morning! Thank you all for having us with you today. My name is Aaron Scott. I’m the Missioner for Anti-Poverty Organizing in the Diocese of Olympia. I’m also the organizer at Chaplains on the Harbor, which is a mission station of this diocese located out on the coast in rural Grays Harbor County. Chaplains on the Harbor is a congregation of around 500 poor and homeless people, scattered across the county’s homeless encampments, trailer parks, slums, back alleys and jails. We run free meal programs, a community center, a cold weather shelter, Narcan distribution, popular education, supportive employment for millennials with criminal records on our four-acre vegetable farm, and we even manage to make a little bit of time each week for worship. I’ll share more about all that in a bit but first I want to talk about what we do through the lens of this reading from the Book of Acts.

How do we know when the law of God and the law of human authorities are at odds? What are the signs? How do we discern our own responsibilities, as people of faith, when confronted with these contradictions? Is God’s law revealed to us by respectable people? By people with graduate degrees and stable finances? Or is God’s law revealed to us by outcasts? By the very people who find themselves on the wrong side of the laws of the powers and principalities of this world?

Knowing who the apostles were helps us think through these questions a bit. The apostles were not wealthy or powerful people. The apostles, like Jesus, were poor. Most of them did backbreaking manual labor, holding down the kinds of jobs they didn’t much seem to mind walking off of the moment Jesus invited them to follow him. We find them in places like Bethany, which literally translates as “house of the poor.” And we know that Jesus, in keeping their company, said himself that he “was counted among the lawless.

Maybe it is among the lawless where God’s law is most clearly revealed.  In scripture, politicians and the wealthy are chronically running afoul of God’s law– they are accused again and again by God and the prophets of rewriting the laws of this world to serve themselves. The people who are always the first ones to stumble into the truth of God, the higher law of God, are outlaws—those whose very survival is made criminal by the rulers of this world.

Why would God reveal things to us this way?

I have one guess, based on our work at Chaplains on the Harbor and from the witness of scripture—from readings like this one we find in Acts 5 today. My guess is that God chooses to show up among scapegoated people to expose injustices where they are inherent in our legal, political, and economic structures. I believe that God does this in deeply loving effort to get us, as collective human societies, to take a long hard look in the mirror at ourselves and then invites us to be transformed from the bottom up.

Some of you may have heard a few months ago about our federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen. Rev. Sarah Monroe, my cofounder at Chaplains on the Harbor, was a plaintiff alongside two others when the city attempted to force homeless people to register themselves and receive permits to sleep rough at the county’s largest encampment where, up to that point, the city had provided no support services. On top of this the city also required all social service providers, advocates, clergy, and family members to apply to City Hall for permission to visit people living at the camp, or face criminal trespassing charges. Rev. Sarah applied for the permit and was denied. This was her public statement when we undertook the suit:

We have not undertaken this lawsuit lightly. The recent actions of the City of Aberdeen regarding the encampment along the Chehalis River pose a threat to our deepest moral and constitutional values. It seems unprecedented, in this country, for a local government to bar advocates, clergy, service providers, family members — basically anyone trying to assist vulnerable people in getting out of homelessness — from meeting them where they are staying. We do not believe that this is a good or safe place to live; we simply acknowledge that, for many people, there is little other choice and, while they are in those circumstances, they need pastoral care and support. It is troubling that the City Engineer has been tasked with leading this process, as opposed to someone whose expertise is in health and human services. This signals to us that the City of Aberdeen is not primarily concerned with the 100+ human beings living in crisis on this site, but rather concerned with aesthetic appearances and “cleaning up the town.”

Mayor Larson himself has agreed, on public record, that the process of registering encampment residents and requiring all third party visitors to be approved by the city is comparable to the process of visiting incarcerated people — and that the key difference is these encampment residents can come and go as they please. Combat veterans living with acute agoraphobia cannot easily come and go as they please. Disabled people living with severe chronic pain, amputations, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress cannot easily come and go as they please. People who look visibly poor, in this city, often cannot come and go as they please due to frequent incidents of harassment and vigilante violence on the basis of their housing status.

My permit to visit this encampment was denied by the city on the grounds that I did not provide enough detail, or a schedule, or a clear list of what I intend to do during my visits. I am a priest. I have been pastoring the people in this camp for five years. I do everything from drive people to the hospital, to prayer, to taking people to social service appointments, to performing last rites when people die here. These essential pastoral duties do not happen on a schedule, as any member of the clergy can attest. I have continued to visit people, even though I have been denied a permit, and am petitioning the court to prevent the city from arresting me.

Homeless people have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious expression. I have a constitutionally protected right to my freedom of religious expression, which includes serving the poor and the sick and the hungry. The city’s actions are a clear attempt to isolate, marginalize, and further criminalize people who have already been pushed to the edge of existence in this community. I consider it my duty as an American citizen and my vocation as a priest to stand against this.

We won that case. A federal judge ordered the city to scrap its permit system for both residents of the camp and visitors, and the highly restricted visiting hours were loosened. Rev. Sarah no longer had to be worried about being arrested for pastoring our congregation. And yet: In Aberdeen, a town of just 16,000 people, there are still 1,000 people homeless and only around 80 shelter beds available. There are still over 100 people living in this one encampment, which the city is pushing to sweep on May 8th, while offering no alternative place for people to move. Meanwhile, the city has passed ordinance after ordinance specifically targeting unhoused people. It is illegal to sit or lie down anywhere outside in downtown Aberdeen from 6am-11pm. It is illegal to haul your belongings around in a shopping cart. The city council is currently considering banning any social service offices from opening up downtown. And all of this, of course, is happening in the richest country in the history of the world.

“We must obey God rather than any human authority,” the apostles tell the temple police and the council. Those words can sound pretty high and mighty if they are coming from people who are already comfortable. But when those same words come from the bottom—from the streets, from the jails—that is the voice of God calling us to step back and look at the cruel absurdities our systems of human authority have created. Because we are to be, in the words of the apostles, “witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

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Sermon: Maundy Thursday 2019

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Street memorial to our beloved dead, lost to poverty and violence, erected at an underpass in Aberdeen WA on Maundy Thursday 2019

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

[Preached at Chaplains on the Harbor, Westport WA]

“Baptism for a Crucified People”

Hello you rascals. As usual, we are doing a lot today. The bishop is here, some people are getting confirmed, some people are getting received, we’re washing everybody’s feet and then we’ll use that same foot-washing water a second time to baptize Levi… full immersion (JUST KIDDING).

We’re doing a lot of things in this service because it’s Holy Week—the most sacred week of the year for Christians, the time when we walk with Jesus through his last days of life, right up to the cross with him on Friday, and then out of the empty tomb on Saturday. We do this week slow, in our tradition. We mark the time with Jesus day by day. Some folks don’t like that. They want to skip the harder parts and fast forward to the resurrection, the happier part. And I understand why, but that’s not how we roll. We tell the whole story. And today we’re going to tell the hardest parts.

Today is Maundy Thursday. It’s the last day Jesus gets to spend surrounded by his community. By the people who know and love him. They’re eating and drinking and joking and brawling together, like we do here every Thursday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday). Jesus knows his days are numbered, and this is still how he chooses to spend them—surrounded by all his broke-ass friends, taking care of each other, struggling to figure out how to live right in the midst of a brutal world, a world that treats them all pretty badly. We call it Maundy Thursday because “maundy” comes from an old word for “commandment”—this is the day that Jesus gives his greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s why Jesus is washing everyone’s feet in the gospel reading we heard. It’s weird, I know, and it doesn’t translate well across two thousand years. But maybe you can think about it like this: if you’ve ever had to live on the street, or in your car, and you don’t have a place to shower, it gets pretty humiliating, right? And you need a shower, but you also hate having to beg people for something like that, because begging is also humiliating. What Jesus is saying with the foot-washing, more or less, is that we don’t get to shame each other for needing that kind of help—and that none of us are too good to give that kind of help to somebody else. Everybody in Jesus’ crew, including Jesus, is poor. This is Jesus showing his crew what it means for poor people to take care of each other, very tenderly, instead of being at each other’s throats all the time.

So they wash each other’s feet, they talk, they eat, they talk some more, and then late that night: Jesus is arrested.

He gets no special treatment from the system. They interrogate him, hold him overnight, sentence him the next day. The Roman police beat him up brutally, strip him, and eventually put him to death alongside two hustlers with burglary charges. The way most Christians talk about it today, you would think he got hung up on a golden cross with a Hollywood sunset behind him and a full orchestra playing along. He didn’t. He died where lots of other poor people were put to death. There were thousands of other crosses just like his all across that region. Most of those crosses were for rebel slaves. Jesus died like many poor people die: an early and unjust death.

When we baptize people into new life in Christ, we also baptize them into Christ’s death. Some Christians get very mystical and philosophical about what that means, and that’s fine, but for me it’s always more concrete. For me, being baptized into Christ’s death means I consecrate my life in service to crucified people. Wherever a cop is beating on someone, wherever city councils are trying to run homeless folks off the face of the earth, wherever fifteen-year olds are getting thrown in solitary confinement—my baptism means I’m no longer allowed to look the other way and pretend that’s somebody else’s problem. If somebody somewhere is getting some kind of crucified, my baptism means it’s my problem, too.

It’s heavy work that lasts your whole life, and nobody can do it on their own, so that’s why we have this community. That’s what the church, if it’s doing its job, is supposed to be: all of us as a community carrying the weight of the world together so that the same people don’t end up getting crushed all the damn time. Because a lot of us here know what it’s like to get crushed again and again, don’t we? We know some things about being a crucified people. It hurts to constantly be afraid. It hurts to worry about getting hungry and having no food, getting sick and having no healthcare, getting cold and wet and having no home. It’s exhausting to always have death breathing down your neck, scratching at the back door of everyone you know and love. We do a lot of funerals around here—too many. Too many young funerals.

Something we learn from Jesus’ story, though, is that when your broke-ass community loves you—loves you right up to the very end, loves you to the grave and beyond—that kind of love catches fire. That love that keeps us showing up for each other, protecting each other, feeding each other, honoring each other’s deaths because we know goddamn well nobody else is going do it for us—that’s the same kind of love that can knock the powerful down off their thrones. That’s the kind of love that puts the last first, and the first last. That’s the kind of love that will turn the world upside down. And we have that here. All of you here are part of that—all of you here, in some way, contribute to that kind of love.

So keep it up.

 

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Sermon: Second Sunday after Epiphany 2019

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Text: John 2:1-11

[Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Olympia WA on January 20, 2019]

“Saint Martin, Saint Johnnie”

It feels right to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day falls in Epiphany—the season of divine wisdom standing in defiance of the logic of empire. King, saint of social and political transformation, belongs in this season that kicks off with the magi honoring Mary and her newborn child while defying orders from Herod. And I think King also fits right in with the Gospel reading today.

I’ve heard preachers use today’s text to illustrate how much smarter Jesus is than everyone around him—particularly women, particularly his mother. This kind of interpretation is only possible when we extract Jesus from his context and community, and willfully pretend that he exists floating in midair above the fray of history. I read it differently, as a student of social movements like the early Jesus movement and the Civil Rights Movement. So I want to offer a parallel story today, a backdrop against which we might understand this John reading anew.

In the last three years of his life, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a political pivot. This was not an abandonment of his Civil Rights work, but a faithful and radical deepening of it. He posed the question, “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?” and began to zero in his work on the intertwining roots of poverty, racism, and militarism. When King publicly denounced the war in Vietnam as the primary expenditure sabotaging the War on Poverty, the white liberal establishment which had long supported him promptly turned their backs, as did President Johnson. But King kept pushing. He increasingly focused on the organized struggles of poor people and workers. And in the last year of his life, 1968, he called for a Poor People’s Campaign. What King didn’t realize was that a group of poor Black women, mothers and grandmothers on welfare in Chicago, had already beat him to this idea. They were the members of the National Welfare Rights Organization, the NWRO.

The following historical research comes out of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary:

In early February, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was coming to Chicago […] at NWRO’s demand. It promised to be a showdown. King was planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” for Washington, D.C. – a tactic born in desperation, as the civil rights movement was in shreds. King had failed, during the previous two years, to solve the riddle of further effective action against northern racism and poverty. The new campaign called for thousands of the poor to encamp in Washington, dramatizing the issues for Congress and the country. The campaign needed foot soldiers. [NWRO] had them – ten thousand paying members in one hundred functioning chapters – and felt that King was trying to divert NWRO members to the Poor People’s Campaign with any recognition of NWRO and its own purposes, program, and strategy. When King walked through the lobby of the downtown Chicago YMCA on February 3, 1968, he was immediately surrounded by admirers – a crowd seeking to glimpse or touch the famous, charismatic leader. [Then] he moved upstairs, with his lieutenants – Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bernard Lafayette, and Al Sampson – to a meeting-room where [a] thirty-member committee sat waiting. There were place-cards around the big rectangular table so that Johnnie Tillmon would be seated in the center, with […] Dr. King on her left. King would be separated from his lieutenants, who were surrounded in each corner by the welfare-recipient leadership. Tim Sampson characterized [the] seating arrangement as ‘a grand piece of psychological warfare.’ To the ladies, King and the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign was a threat. They were angry that King’s lieutenants had moved around the country contacting local welfare rights groups, asking them to join the banner at the cost of abandoning their own welfare-organizing efforts. ‘The women’s concern was that they had a major constituency organization,’ said Sampson. ‘They had created it with their blood, sweat, and tears, and it was something magnificent to them. Not to be recognized was an attack on their very being. And to have it taken away was unthinkable.” While Johnnie Tillmon presided, holding her grandchild in her lap, King waited quietly until each woman introduced herself. He then began to describe the purposes of the forthcoming Washington campaign. ‘We need your support,’ he concluded. Then Etta Horn opened the barrage: ‘How do you stand on P.L. 90-248?’ Puzzled, Dr. King looked toward the Reverend Andrew Young, his executive director. ‘She means the Anti-Welfare bill, H.R. 12080, passed by the Congress on December 15, and signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson on January 2,’ interrupted Mrs. Tillmon. ‘Where were you last October, when we were down in Washington trying to get support for Senator Kennedy’s amendments?’ Beulah Sanders held up a copy of the NWRO pamphlet The Kennedy Welfare Amendments. King was bewildered by the technical discussion of the new law as his staff tried to fend off the women’s hostile questions. Finally, Johnnie Tillmon said, “You now, Dr. King, if you don’t know about these questions, you should say you don’t know, and then we could go on with the meeting.’ ‘You’re right, Mrs. Tillmon,’ King replied. ‘We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.’ The NWRO members proceeded to bring Dr. King up to date on the history of what they saw as welfare repression in Congress and the nation.

It is only historical movement gossip, but I have heard this story told with the added footnote that after King left the room and closed the door behind him, he said to his lieutenants, “Those women are crazy.” But he couldn’t do a thing without them. And they made sure he knew it. So:

King capitulated and asked for their help in understanding their policy positions, promising to ask the SCLC to officially endorse their policy demands and inviting them to help plan the Poor People’s Campaign. Women from the welfare rights movement from across the country did take up leadership in the Campaign. They took part in the Minority Group Leaders Gathering a month later, were among the leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign Steering Committee, and chaired Steering Committee meetings. NWRO stepped off the Poor People’s Campaign with a Mother’s Day March, opened a NWRO office in Resurrection City [the campaign’s tent city pitched on the National Mall], and testified at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In other words, those same “crazy” women are the very people who ensured that the Poor People’s Campaign actually happened, in the wake of King’s assassination, when his inner circle was pitched into chaos. Just as it was the women who stayed at the foot of the cross when the disciples had fled. Just as it was a woman—a mother, his mother—who pointed out to Jesus in the first place that there was no wine for the wedding at Cana. And it seems, at least to me, like he gets salty with Her. Maybe even haughty. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” It doesn’t stop Her. He sasses Her, and She just keeps moving, telling everyone around Her that there is work that remains to be done, and She makes sure to drag Jesus into that work: “Do whatever he tells you.” Looks like She just made sure it’s your concern now, son. You better tell these people to do something.

And he does.

So whose miracle is it again?

I say all of this to dismiss neither Jesus nor King, but to elevate Mary and Johnnie Tillmon. Jesus is our salvation, our most precious gift from God. And: Jesus came to us through a people. Through a specific history. Through a specific Mother. If we truly seek to know him, then we must by necessity know Her. We do not have a messiah who came down from the clouds, fully formed. We have a messiah who was carried in Mary’s womb for nine months, who learned the sound of Her voice as his first music before he was even born, who was raised up, chased after, scolded, played with, and humbled by Her, and Her people, and his people long before he ever turned water to wine.

Likewise with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King came to us, not in a cloud, but surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses like Etta Horn, Beulah Sanders, and Johnnie Tillmon who formed him and his work. So as we glorify Christ, let us glorify the Beloved Mother. And as we move through this week in honor of the sanctified memory of King, let us also raise up the sainthood of Johnnie Tillmon.

Amen.

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Sermon: Maundy Thursday 2018

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“Jesus: A Leader from the Servant Class”

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

I hope somebody remembered to warm the water up a little this year. Last year it was cold!

 

We do this foot-washing service every year, the Thursday before Easter, in memory of Jesus doing the same thing for his disciples just before he died. Some of you feel funny about it, some of you like it, and some of you like it quite a bit—free foot massages from the bishop! So before anybody gets too worked up, I’m going to remind you: nobody HAS to do this, everybody is invited if you want it, and don’t worry about what your feet look like. If you’re feeling worried about that, just remember that Jesus’ feet were pretty damn filthy and beat up from walking through the desert in sandals all day. So yours are probably a lot better looking no matter what shape they’re in.

 

We do this every year to remember and to practice a little bit, in a hands on way, the way Jesus calls us to serve each other. You hear people call Jesus a servant-leader because of the way he showed leadership—by drawing in people who were suffering and left out, by taking care of sick people and hungry people, by remembering people in jail, by lifting up the importance of children and women in a society that didn’t value them. And it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t do this as a high and mighty ruler. He did it as a poor person himself, from a little poor fishing town, where the government was pretty corrupt and not on the side of struggling people. So he was also a servant-leader because he was a leader who came from a class of folks who were considered servants rather than masters, workers rather than bosses, farmers and fishers instead of kings and generals. He was a leader from the bottom instead of a leader from the top, and he worked to make change and make the world more fair and more hopeful from the bottom up.

 

Most of you know we just started a farm: Harbor Roots Farm! It’s something a lot of us have been dreaming about for a long time now—a way to create a few decent jobs for local people that really gives back to this community instead of just using up the land and the people, taking all the money and the good stuff, and walking away. We’re growing fresh veggies to sell, so that we can pay our farmers, but we’re also looking to grow extra for local people who can’t afford to pay. And we’re working to make sure in all of this that we do everything in a way that really respects and cares for the land for the long haul. So no dumping a bunch of poison pesticides on our stuff, that makes the people, the land, the plants and the water all sick. The Jewish law, the tradition that Jesus came out of, teaches very clearly that when you farm you’ve got to do all these things: pay the workers a fair wage, leave aside a portion of your crop for people who are in need, and work the land in a way that doesn’t destroy it.

 

We’ve hired three farmers: Nita, James and Donny. Hannah’s going to be farming alongside them, too, in addition to figuring out stuff like fundraising and where to sell the crop. We’re going to do a special blessing over our farmers today in just a minute because these four, each in their own way, really demonstrate the kind of leadership Jesus was trying teach. They’ve done it in their own lives caring for their families, for their children, for people who are homeless, and working to make positive change right here in Grays Harbor County—even while going through hard times in their own lives. Now they’re taking that servant-leadership a step further by coming to work for us on this farm, growing food for hungry people in addition to earning their own wages. Each of these four farmers care about fairness, about respect and dignity for all people, and they’ll each be working their tails off to make that real—not just for themselves but for our whole community.

 

So let’s give thanks for these strong servant-leaders. Nita, Donny, James and Hannah—come on up here and let’s have the bishop, Rev. Sarah, and anyone else who wants to come lay hands on them for a blessing.

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Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent 2018

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Text: John 2:13-22

[Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Blaine WA, on March 4th, 2018]

“Scrappy Like Jesus”

My name is Aaron. I work at Chaplains on the Harbor. I’m grateful to Christ Church for inviting me all the way up here, to come preach and teach on our work.

Chaplains on the Harbor is a mission station of this diocese rooted stubbornly, intractably in Grays Harbor County. Grays Harbor County has twice the opioid overdose death rate as the rest of Washington State. Grays Harbor County incarcerates children for nonviolent noncriminal offenses (like truancy and running away from home) at a higher rate than any county in the nation. The Harbor has one of the highest rates of CPS child removal in the state, and one of the lowest rates of reunification. Our roughly 500-person base at Chaplains on the Harbor is mostly young—millennials are our biggest age demographic—and on average one of our members dies each month from preventable, poverty-related causes: from lack of health care, from police brutality, from exposure, from overdose.

What we do most of the time is slow, quiet work: feeding people, making jail visits, hosting cold weather shelters, checking in on homeless encampments, teaching and preaching. Thanks to a generous young pig farmer, we’ve recently been granted the use of three acres of land along the Wynoochee River. We’re going to use this to launch a farming apprenticeship for our young members getting out of jail and off the streets, to sell food that generates income for them, as well as to create surplus food for local hungry people. This is, we hope, the opposite of the extraction economics that looted the resources and labor of Grays Harbor County, without thinking of the future or adequately providing for the loggers and fishers who built the wealth of those industries. This is, we hope, is the opposite of the Roman Empire’s temple tax system that looted Galilee.

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