Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2015

*Great big shout out to Lenora Knowles for being a critical revolutionary eye on this one.

“Against the Rulers”

Text: Ephesians 6:10-20

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in high places.

When I was halfway through seventh grade, a new student started at my school. His name was Curtis. He was in my art class. My Upstate New York hometown of 5,000 people was 97% white. Curtis was Black. Three whole days went by before another student in our art class whispered the n-word at Curtis in passing. Curtis did not hesitate, laid the kid flat with one good punch and left him squealing on the ground. I never saw Curtis again after that. He was expelled. The other kid was placed on in-school suspension for about a week.

Four years later, when I was a senior, I sat through a semester of economics in a classroom with a full-sized Confederate flag hung on the back wall. For “historical value,” my teacher said. During civics class that same year, I listened to peers debate (for class credit) in favor of racial segregation. I couldn’t wait to leave town when I was eighteen. I believed back then that I could move to some urban haven where racism had been abolished.

Then I arrived in New York City—a little while before Tim Stansbury’s murder and stayed until a little while after Sean Bell’s murder. Both of them were unarmed Black civilians killed by NYPD officers. At some point during the time between their deaths, I began to realize there was no opting out. That it didn’t matter if I was in a red county or a blue county, in a big city or out in the sticks. That if I wanted to be someplace where racism didn’t exist I had to work with others, under the leadership of Black and Brown people, to bring such a place into existence. Because it doesn’t exist yet. Not in New York City. Not in Seattle either.

I work in Seattle half the week and in Grays Harbor County the other half of the week, so I hear everybody’s funny/not funny ideas. On the Harbor, people’s cards are on the table: the militias, the smattering of Confederate flags on the tenement windows in Felony Flats. You can figure out where folks stand pretty quickly. In Seattle, I get a lot of people patting me on the back for going to organize in “enemy territory”—Aberdeen! Rednecks! Trailer trash! These, apparently, are liberal Seattle’s favorite code words for poor white people. There’s a familiar smug look certain Seattleites get on their face when they find an opportunity to trash-talk my people on the Harbor, bemoaning the “backwards” politics. If only they knew better. If only they voted better. They could be just like Seattle. Seattle—where we obviously have none of these problems of racism, poverty, skyrocketing homelessness, epidemic levels of addiction.

Right.

If liberal self-congratulation achieved anything, Seattle would have abolished the sins of poverty and racism long ago. Instead, our rates of forced displacement continue to mushroom while gentrification eviscerates poor and working neighborhoods of color. I work with homeless Seattleites, many of whom once had homes in historic Black and Brown neighborhoods like the Central District and Columbia City. They can tell you a great deal about the limitations of the grand progressive dream of our city as “welcoming,” “tolerant,” and “open-minded.”

Christ Church had a small contingent at Seattle’s Black Lives Matter memorial march for Michael Brown of Ferguson MO two weeks ago. As we wound our way through the Central District, young Black women leading the way stopped us in front of Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop on 23rd and Union. They explained how Washington’s marijuana legalization process paved the way for this hip, glittering liberal beacon of gentrification to open its doors right next to a Black church with preschool—while the poor Black teenagers previously arrested for selling weed on that very same corner remain behind bars today.

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities.

The stories we tell ourselves—that some places have it all figured out, while other places are hopelessly screwed up—are challenged by the word we hear in Ephesians today. Blood and flesh are under the thumb of repression from Aberdeen to Seattle. Smugness has not saved us. Political parties have not saved us. Elected officials have not saved us. Not from the multiple crises that have been welling up from day one in the bloody birth of this country, then again in the Civil War, only to be swept under the rug again by the desecrating failure of Reconstruction. As absolutely necessary as they were, every major US social movement since that time has only won concessions from the power structure—never fundamental transformation of it.

We are, at this moment, engaged in a pitched battle for the soul of this nation. There are no spectators. There are no sidelines. Our choices are to either forfeit to the powers and principalities grinding down poor people and people of color—in the prisons, in underfunded schools, in the daily desperation-born violence of street life—or to step up as one another’s belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, and helmet of salvation. Saints have done this in the past. We can learn from them in the present. I think of the friendship that blossomed between the biblical fundamentalist John Brown and the mystic militant Harriet Tubman, as they labored together in the abolitionist movement. Brown always referred to Tubman as “The General.” Tubman said after Brown was hung for treason for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, “He done more in dying than a hundred men would in living.”

There’s a piece to their friendship that’s earlier, that actually came twenty-one years before Tubman and Brown met. At the memorial service for murdered abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 John Brown stood, raised his right hand, and said, “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” Before he ever knew her, Brown had consecrated his flesh and blood to the same struggle Tubman was waging. She ran at night through the swamps in Gospel shoes. He wielded the sword of the Spirit. Together, with a host of other saints from the ranks of the poor and the enslaved, they took on the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places and toppled the institution of slavery. They did not reform the institution. They broke it. They outlawed it. They showed us this is possible.

We, now, in 2015, have other abolitions to secure. Poverty and racism endure—protected and perpetuated by law, by culture, by economics, by theology just as slavery was. In the work of tearing down this wall, we stand on some of the biggest shoulders history has on offer. And we also stand side by side with saints, from Felony Flats in Aberdeen to Seattle’s South End. We can consecrate our lives to one another anew in this generation, flesh and blood. We can choose now to offer up the broken body of our country, to be resurrected and redeemed.

Amen.

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About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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