Sermon: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost 2019

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Credit to Willie Baptist, founding member of the National Union of the Homeless, for introducing me to this image and much of this sermon’s theology.

[Preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle WA, in observance of Homelessness Sunday]

“Jesus Was Homeless”

Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you all today. My name is Aaron Scott, I’m with Chaplains on the Harbor, and I brought three of my amazing coworkers with me today: Mashyla Buckmaster, Tracy Clayton and Skye Clayton. We are a mission station of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, based out on the coast in rural Grays Harbor County. The Rev. Sarah Monroe and I co-founded this organization six years ago with a backpack full of sandwiches, a $500 grant, and a pack of cigarettes. Six years later, we have an eleven-person staff—the majority of whom are formerly homeless. We run a community center out of our church building in Westport with showers, free laundry facilities, free wifi, a hygiene bank, a cold weather shelter and weekly worship. We do street outreach, jail visits, distribute a jail and prison newsletter, and distribute Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal drug). We operate a four acre vegetable farm which we run as a CSA—selling shares to people who can afford to buy them and donating our surplus back into our free meal programs. We offer supportive, living-wage employment to people getting off the street, out of jail, and on their feet. We run six feeding programs each week. We are deeply involved in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And we recently settled our second victorious federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen, for violating the human and Constitutional rights of homeless people.

Mashyla, Tracy, Skye and I are all going to be hanging out at your coffee hour to talk more with you about our work. But you all are observing “Homelessness Sunday” this morning, and we know that Grays Harbor County hasn’t cornered the market on homelessness, so while I’m up here, I want to talk about the things that we have in common on this front—from Seattle to Aberdeen and beyond. And I want to talk about where God is, in the thick of it all.

I want to start first with numbers—numbers which I hope will piss you off. First, according to Amnesty International: there are 3.5 million homeless people living in the United States. Second, also according to Amnesty International: there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the United States. 3.5 million homeless people, and 18.5 million vacant homes. In the richest country on earth. That is enough vacant homes for every homeless person to have five homes.

Our problem is not homeless people. Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while people are freezing to death in the streets.

Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while mothers are sleeping in their vehicles with their babies in the dead of winter.

Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while people from big cities and small towns all over this country are dying in droves from drug overdoses because self-medicating for physical pain and psychological trauma is light years more accessible that healthcare and astronomically cheaper than rent. Street drugs are cheap. You know what’s not? College tuition. Heart medication. Epi-pens. Therapy. Drugs are frighteningly easy to find. You know what’s not? A living wage job and an affordable one-bedroom apartment.

Homelessness is not natural. Homelessness is not God’s will. It’s not some survival-of-the-fittest game God is playing on us. Mass homelessness on the scale we have seen in this country since the 1980s is not a permanent part of our history that has always been there. Homelessness is the result systemic, sinful policies. It is a man-made crisis. There is nothing mysterious about it. We stopped funding public housing in this country a generation ago. From 1978 to 1983, HUD—the office of Housing and Urban Development—saw its budget cut by 77%. That money never came back. The same happened with the rural housing funding that was available through USDA. And at the very same time that public money for truly affordable housing was gutted at the federal level, we saw a huge surge in the number of laws passed that criminalize homelessness. What does that mean? That means that the powers and principalities of this nation cut funding for housing, and when they saw an enormous number of people displaced and end up on the streets, they found a way to get them off the streets by locking them up. And very steadily ever since then, have been selling a narrative to all of us that people are homeless because of their own bad decisions and moral failings. You know what I think is a moral failing? A system that allows 3.5 million people to be homeless while 18.5 million homes sit vacant. It’s not like this country ran out of money. You and I may have run out of money, with wages stagnating since the 1970s—but the Pentagon budget certainly hasn’t run out of money. Contracts for the operation and maintenance of immigrant detention centers and the militarization of our southern border certainly didn’t run out of money. The US prison system certainly hasn’t run out of money. Amazon hasn’t run out of money.

We are the church. What can we do in the face of all this? That can be a scary question because it’s a lot to take on. I try to start with a different one: what is our Christian responsibility in the face of all this? To what work is God most deeply calling us?

We do a lot of good, as churches. We feed people, we run shelters, we do clothing drives, we write checks. That’s all really important, and we need to keep doing all of that. But Jesus is persistent in reminding us that he’s not just about acts of kindness. Jesus is also about the truth. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be about the truth. We have to tell the whole story, about how we got here. And we have to be honest about what it’s going to take to turn this thing around. It’s going to take more than sock drives at Christmas and food drives at Thanksgiving—we are going to have to look at the structures responsible for the suffering of God’s people. It’s also going to take more than talking about homeless people—we are required, by the example of Jesus, to talk with and listen to and accept authority from homeless people. No movement is ever won on behalf of a people who are not included in it as leaders themselves. Can you imagine a movement for women’s suffrage that was kindly handed to them by men? Can you imagine the abolition of slavery ever happening without the leadership of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and the countless thousands of people who set themselves free by escaping north, before Lincoln ever said they had the right to do so? No. That is not how social movements work. If we say we want economic justice, then poor people and homeless people need to be at the center of whatever work we are doing.

We worship a Messiah whose family was on the run from the law when he was born. They squatted in barn with him for a while and then they crossed the border. He grew up in one of the poorest backwaters of the Roman Empire, spending all of his time among peasants and petty criminals—not above the poor, but fully among the poor. One of poor, in life and in death. Not because he benevolently gave away all his wealth, but because he himself didn’t have it to begin with. He spent his time in places Bethany, which literally translates to “House of the Poor.” He was assassinated by the Roman government in the same manner as rebel slaves were, because that’s who the Romans saw him as. His friends buried him in a borrowed grave. He didn’t stay there. And he once said of himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” So if we are looking for him today, we need to be looking in the right place. Don’t worship a homeless person on Sunday and ignore one on Monday.

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Sermon: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost 2019

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Text: Luke 18:9-14

[Preached at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Chehalis WA]

“The Whole Damn System”

Who do we picture when we see this tax collector? Do we imagine an old-timey IRS employee of the Bible days, dressed for the office? Someone who, though he may not be respected, is at least considered respectable? It’s hard to translate this line of work across the millennia. It’s hard to capture how thoroughly despised—and neither respected nor respectable—tax collectors were when Jesus walked the earth. When we read “tax collector” in this scripture, we should not picture an IRS agent. It would be truer to history to imagine the tax collector as someone like a drug dealer.

Tax collectors, in this time and place, had dangerous and insecure jobs, carrying out some of the dirtiest work of the Roman Empire—not because of their strong moral allegiance to the empire but because they got paid for it. As a means of surviving in a chaotic and brutal economy, they often further corrupted the already-corrupt duties assigned them: by taking an extra cut for themselves on top of the taxes they were collecting. Any money they made for themselves, they probably stole. They were seen, for many legitimate reasons, as collaborators in the destruction of their own struggling, occupied communities.

Tax collectors were not government employees; they were individual contractors. They were not on top of the pyramid scheme of Roman taxation—they were not even in the middle. Those of the same rank as the disciple Matthew and the tax collector of this parable were slaves or people from the lower class hired out for this work. Because of their contact with the Romans, they were stigmatized as “unclean.” Socially they were ranked with murderers and robbers. Their testimonies were not accepted in Judean courts, they were not eligible for Judean charity, they were not even permitted to change their funds at the treasury.

It makes sense, on one level, for Judean society and the Pharisee to identify this group as “the problem.” The sins of the tax collectors were visible. Struggling Galilean farmers could see the tax collectors stopping them at the entrances to cities, pawing through their crops and goods, always taking more than was honest, more than the peasants could afford to part with. Less visible were those middlemen the tax collectors worked for. Less visible still: the senators and magistrates who were explicitly and by law “prohibited from engaging in business or trade” themselves but were directly enriched by the taxation system. They made sure that the economic violence keeping their entire system afloat was outsourced to poor and desperate people.

I work in Grays Harbor County, where the street drug economy is a major employer. It has become a primary replacement economy since the timber industry went abroad, and it operates in tandem with the industry of incarceration—the lucrative business of keeping jails and prisons full. I know and love many drug dealers. Most of the drug dealers I know are concerned with buying food for themselves or their children, with paying rent (if they’re lucky enough to have housing at all). Most of the drug dealers I know are people who cannot secure living-wage employment through any legal means. Because of criminal records and outstanding warrants, I know many people involved in the drug economy who—like the tax collectors—are unable to access the social safety net. I know drug economy workers who have been denied healthcare after being profiled as IV drug users. I know at least one young man who died from this form of healthcare denial—and just like the tax collectors, the testimony of his friends was not accepted in the investigation of his death because they, too, were involved in the drug economy.

Yet despite these systemic cruelties, most of the drug dealers I know tend to be far more personally ashamed of the role they’ve had to play in surviving this economy—far more ashamed than the hospital administrators, far more ashamed than those holding the purse strings of the social safety net, far more ashamed than any elected officials or clergy. And certainly far and away more ashamed than the CEOs and founding families of pharmaceutical companies who continue to make money hand over fist from manufacturing the opioid epidemic.

Why does Jesus cast down the Pharisee and lift up the dealer in this parable? Not for abstract metaphysical reasons. Jesus’ morality is always as material as it is spiritual. When the Pharisee calls himself pious, he lies. He fasts and tithes vigilantly, but what is this worth if he still identifies poor and stigmatized people as the enemies of righteousness? It’s akin to praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: gang members, prisoners, sex workers, or even like this drug dealer. I only buy organic fair-trade food; I write a monthly check to my favorite nonprofit.”

Jesus is not having it with that prayer!

The wealth of empires—in Jesus’ time and our own—is built off the backs of exploited and impoverished people. But who are the architects of empire? Who are the stabilizers of empire? Who are the gatekeepers of empire? Not the poor. The architects of empire are the senators, the magistrates, and the corporations. The stabilizers and gatekeepers are the storytellers: academics, media, and us—the church. The stories we tell about what is moral, what is sin, and what is our responsibility have the capacity to either uphold or upend the imperial order. Far more often than we wish it were true, the church has upheld empire. We do this more insidiously than overtly. We do it as a way of catering to our own fear and anxiety and ego and desire to hoard resources. We do it because it is easier. We do it because transformation is slow, painful, costly work and we do it because our imaginations are stunted by imperial conditioning. We can imagine writing checks, we can imagine good volunteer projects and mission trips, we can imagine building tiny houses, we can imagine canned food drives. But can we imagine abolishing poverty? Can we imagine ending homelessness permanently and forever?

Can we imagine a world—or even a single parish—where drug dealers are as valued and beloved as bishops? Where the sins and spiritual gifts of both are held up to the light and assessed honestly and according to scale?

I think about this tax collector’s prayer a lot. The individual sins of poor people loom large in our imaginations, because the operation of our whole society still hinges on the idea that people are poor through some fault of their own. This, despite the reality that almost half of Americans are poor—and that redistributing the wealth of the tiniest top percentile would be more than enough to end that poverty. But this tax collector—we choose him for our scapegoat. He has probably lied at some point in his life. He has probably stolen. He has probably done some dirt to other poor people. That is the guilt and the price of his survival. And yet despite the crushing system bearing down on him, he still wants to be a person who does the right thing. He is ashamed he cannot. “Dear God, I am sorry I ripped off that olive farmer and deprived him of money he might have needed to care for his sick daughter. I did it because I also have children. And I will do anything to keep them fed. This is the one chance I had. Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

If Jesus loves that prayer more than the prayer of the Pharisee, it is because Jesus sees the bigger picture. Jesus sees the hard choices the Pharisee has never been forced to make. Jesus sees the life and light in the eyes of the tax collector’s children when there is food on the table. Jesus sees the shame and rage on the faces of the peasant farmers being robbed by the empire’s extortion, and the shame and rage behind the eyes of the tax collectors who can’t secure their survival any other way. Jesus sees the magistrates and senators high above the fray, free to spend their days in deep intellectual debates and comfortable living precisely because the blood of the poor is running in the streets. And up out of this violence and chaos, one penitent prayer rises to God’s ears—the honest reflection of a heart broken by the shame of survival. Jesus hears that prayer. He hears it and he answers: “It’s not you, baby. It’s the whole damn system that’s guilty. Come with me. We’ll take it on together.”

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Sermon: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2019

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Text: Luke 18:1-8

[Preached at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Vashon Island WA]

“The Judge’s Fear, The Widow’s Power”

Good morning!  It’s a blessing to be with you all today. Thanks so much to Rev. Sarah Colvin for sharing this pulpit with me, and with our ministry. My name is Aaron Scott and I work with Chaplains on the Harbor. We are a mission station of the Diocese of Olympia, located out on the coast, in Grays Harbor County. We are a parish of roughly 500 poor, homeless, and incarcerated people. We do street outreach in Aberdeen, run a shelter and community center in Westport, host six meal programs a week, do weekly jail visits, publish a jail and prison newsletter, distribute Narcan, operate a four-acre farm, and do human rights organizing with the poorest people in the county. We do all of this with an amazing staff of eleven people, the majority of whom are formerly homeless themselves.

We are also in the middle of a second federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen for violating the human and constitutional rights of homeless people. So today’s gospel reading has a special, immediate resonance for our line of work.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

“So that she will not wear me out with her continual coming.”

This choice of translation very much takes the teeth out of the original text. Most of our English translations do, though there is some range. “So that she will not wear me out” is also interpreted as:

“So that she will not annoy me.”

“So that she will not pester me.”

“So that she will not plague me.”

“So that she will not harass me.”

“So that she will not attack me.”

Which one would you guess is closest to the original text?

This line translates from Koine Greek as: “So that she will not hit me in the eye.”

The judge, who does not care about God or people, rules in favor of this widow “so that she will not hit me in the eye.”

It is possible that this is a euphemism. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers tells us, “Literally, however, it expresses the act of the pugilist when he strikes a blow which leaves a livid bruise on his opponent’s face… What is described here is the continuous shower of blows, each of which is short of a ‘knock-down,’ while their accumulative effect is, in the nearest equivalent of modern English, that the man is so ‘punished’ that he is glad to give over at any price.” Strong’s Greek Concordance tells us the word implies teasing mockery, and being subdued.

Does this change how we hear the story?

I don’t know about you, but even though I have loved this parable for many years, the image of it in my mind changed dramatically when one of my mentors, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign, taught me about this particular translation.

I still love what I loved about it before: how Jesus highlights for us in this story that justice is not purely a matter of pleading to the individual consciences of powerful people, but often about forcing their hand. How the widow secures justice for herself and her life not by being meek and kindly but by being dogged. How Jesus lifts her up as our example in faithfulness.

But then I found out that this widow wasn’t just annoying the judge. She was scrappy enough that she was actually frightening him. And I loved her even more. What grabs me about this detail is that it shifts the power dynamic earlier in the story line. Justice is not begrudgingly handed down by the judge, it is wrested from his hands. The judge fears the widow.

We often talk about justice like it is a tidy process involving just the correct equations of “awareness raising,” good publicity, and directing our efforts through the appropriate and sanctioned legislative channels. Call your senators. Write a strongly-worded letter. Memorize your talking points. These are not bad things, but on their own they fall wildly short of the full set of tools God has given us for pursing transformation in our society. God also gives us the gift of direct action, of public protest and demonstration, of confrontation with the power structure. But when we expand our witness for justice to include these practices, there can be pushback: we have crossed a line into being “too political,” “too divisive.”

Our legal fight with the City of Aberdeen has indeed been called divisive, political, and many less diplomatic names.  If you attended our hearing at the US District courthouse in Tacoma with us on May 9th, you might have seen and felt something different. For this current case our priest, Rev. Sarah Monroe, is suing the City of Aberdeen along with ten homeless plaintiffs and one of their family members. One of those plaintiffs indeed is a widow. Our priest performed last rites for her husband in the mud of the encampment a couple years back. This widow sat with the other plaintiffs at the front of the courtroom, before a Republican judge, across the aisle from City Council members who have consistently pushed to criminalize and marginalize homeless people. I’ve been trying to find the perfect words to describe the scene but I don’t know how else to say this so I’m just going to use the language closest to my heart:

That Republican judge damn near got slain in the Spirit. I watched the Holy Ghost work him over right before my eyes. I watched a lot of sick, deceitful rhetoric about homeless people spill out of his mouth until he was just about emptied– like a purge. And then I watched him, a man who has probably been in control of most of his interpersonal interactions for the vast majority of his life, lose control of his own internal narrative. In his own courtroom. In front of homeless plaintiffs. In front of two dozen clergy from the diocese who turned out to support us. Time got weird. It was a perfectly clear and sunny day but the room got hazy.

He wasn’t sympathetic. He didn’t have the correct analysis. He said all the wrong things. He ruled in our favor anyway. He looked up at all the priests in their collars right before we adjourned and awkwardly stammered out, “My family has always lived in neighborhoods with poor people and it has been, in many ways, a great blessing.”

Maybe it was the social pressure that scared him: maybe he was really overwhelmed by the standing-room-only coalition we brought with us that included a 92-year old priest-and-WWII-veteran (who slept through most of the proceedings), the local drag group, Native elders, punks, hillbillies, and street moms. I think we played our strategy very powerfully. Our lawyer is a shark who ran circles around the city attorney. But there was something else happening, too. It felt like a spiritual jailbreak. Like the Holy Dove was breaking and entering to crack a squat in federal court for an hour, to protect Her people. And She got away with it.

“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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Sermon: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2019

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Text: Luke 17:11-19

[Preached at St. Antony of Egypt, Silverdale WA]

“Never Dirty to Begin With”

What does it mean to be made clean?

What does it mean to be healed?

Are these the same thing?

There’s a line I learned a few years ago from people who are in recovery from addiction, one that pushes back on some of our common language around sobriety like “getting clean” or “clean and sober.” The line goes: “Don’t call me ‘clean,’—I was never dirty to begin with.”

I think Jesus would like this line.

One thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that lepers were deeply stigmatized in Jesus’ time. And Jesus refused to further this stigma. He did the opposite. He risked taking on the stigma himself in order to break through the isolation his society tried to impose upon suffering people. He touched lepers, when they sought him out and asked to be touched. He offered healing but he did not take the credit for it himself. Instead, Jesus consistently recognizes that people choosing to break out of their own shame and isolation to reach for healing is where the real miracle always lies. He tells the healed Samaritan in today’s Gospel story, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

We mangle this word: faith. The Greek in which this text was originally written doesn’t translate faith as “belief.” It is not a word that means sticking to a doctrine and thought-policing yourself 24/7. The word itself is pistis. It is much closer to “trust.” Sometimes even “confidence.”

Get up and go on your way; your trust has made you well.

Get up and go on your way; your confidence has made you well.

People claiming their own worth and taking a courageous step to assert their humanity despite a hostile and violent world: that is the miracle here as Jesus sees it. Maybe he has magic hands, maybe not, but that’s not the point. The point is that even when people are scapegoated for their own suffering and left to die on the margins of society, sometimes they refuse. Sometimes those people decide they still matter. And when they do this, God says they’re right. God says they deserve to have their cries heard and demands met.

The world has changed a lot since Jesus’ time, and also not very much. Social stigmatization still has the power to crush people. Whole populations are still rendered “unclean” and viewed as moral failures, responsible for their own suffering even when they are clearly being impacted by forces far beyond their individual control.

Leprosy was and is a disease that mostly, but not exclusively, effects poor people. It is a poor people’s disease because malnutrition and the presence of other illnesses increase one’s risk of transmission– and poor people tend to be sicker and more malnourished. We also know, today, that genetics play a role: some people are born with genes less resistant to leprosy than others.

Similarly: while substance abuse disorders are certainly not exclusive to the poor, poor communities are often structurally flooded with both drugs and trauma, and rarely funded for the means to heal. And some people are born with genes which make them more susceptible to addictive substances. In these ways, leprosy parallels the disease of addiction. Medical research has even gone so far to directly compare the stigma faced by people with substance abuse disorders to the stigma faced by people with leprosy and at least one study found them to have “a high degree of commonality in stigma drivers” with “the co-occurrence of five components: labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination.” So it is not far-fetched read today’s gospel as an illustration of how Jesus might engage with people who are struggling with active addiction.

But there is more than this.

Ten lepers come to Jesus. He tells them to go show themselves to the priests, and as they’re headed that way, the text tells us they are “made clean.” Jesus hasn’t touched them. The priests haven’t yet seen them. Just the act of pursuing their own healing by going to present their needs before the very authorities who have declared them “unclean” and unworthy—is apparently enough to make a miracle happen. And then: one of them notices he is healed. He stops. He turns around.

This part is important.

When you have been on the receiving end of stigma, one of the tried and true ways of getting out from under it is to distance yourself from other suffering people and then throw them under the bus. You can probably think of examples. In the outdated recovery frameworks still circulating through most of this country, this can look like: someone who gets sober from their own drug addiction becoming the most vitriolic hater of people who are still in active use. Similarly: the codes that shaped public perception and social stigma in Jesus’ time did not only render the lepers “unclean”—they also marked anyone associating with lepers “unclean” as well. This means that if Jesus was rubbing elbows lepers, Jesus was also marked as unclean. So it makes sense that the nine other lepers would keep running from him once they saw they were healed. Finally, after years of lonelieness, and shame, and pain they were free to reenter society. They weren’t about to give that up just so they could go say thanks

But the Samaritan does. I don’t know why. The economic and social risk of doing so would’ve hit him just as hard, but maybe as an immigrant, he feels less culturally bound to the same conventions as Jesus and the others. Or maybe, precisely because he is a stranger in a strange land, he knows his grip on stability is tenuous at best—and sees it in his best interest to stick with the one person who showed him mercy instead of fleeing back into the arms of the system that screwed him over to begin with. Either way: the Samaritan is the one who breaks the cycle of scapegoating in this story. He doesn’t leave Jesus behind to bootstrap his own way out of stigma or die from it. He reaches back to him.

If there is anything that I am proudest of at our work at Chaplains on the Harbor, it is the times we have done this. It is the leaders in our work who—struggling with addiction, poverty, homelessness, and criminalization themselves—have refused to abandon other struggling people once they got on their feet. I am proudest of the ways we, as a team, have reached back again and again, proving not only the kindness of struggling people—but also the insight, the skills, the intelligence, and the power of people who have been at the bottom.

We have done this at some cost. Almost like clockwork, each year now, local chatter starts buzzing louder about how our projects “enable” people who are struggling with meth and heroin addictions. Currently, this chatter has gone beyond nasty comments and escalated to individuals taking it on themselves to harass and attempt to sabotage the county needle exchange and Narcan distribution program, despite the extensive proof of these programs’ ability to save lives and strengthen public health. Threats against our staff are par for the course. Two thousand years after Jesus, it can feel like we haven’t really come that far.

And yet: we have seen incredible things. We have watched leaders in our work go from homelessness and active substance use to testifying before the US Senate and questioning presidential candidates on their policies for affordable housing. We have watched people living in encampments assert their constitutional and human rights in federal court, against local governments attempting to push them further to the margins. We have filed lawsuits with them and we have won.

When Jesus tells the Samaritan, the one who returns, “your faith has made you well”—the verb used here is closer to “save.” “Your faith has saved you.” Ten were healed but only one was saved—the one who came back. If we think of salvation as an individual experience between a pious believer and God, we miss the point. God saves us when we reach back for each other. When we refuse to abandon each other to the loneliness of our own oppression and shame. Salvation is something we do with each other. Salvation is solidarity.

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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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