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.