Sunday, January 24, 2016

Daring to Hope

It takes so much courage to hope.

When I visited Palestine a year ago, someone had scrawled a message on the concrete wall that divides the West Bank from Israel. It said; “Hope against hope.” When I was there, we met with a young woman from Bethlehem who had been educated in the U.S., but decided that it was her mission to return to her hometown. She works with Dar al-Kalima, a Lutheran program that offers art and education to young Palestinians in the West Bank. She talked about how her role was to hold hope for her people. I was struck, in that room that day, surrounded with the stories of people’s suffering, just how much courage it takes to hope.

That has stuck with me. It stuck with me largely because I feel like that is what I do, what we do, in our ministry. Hold hope.

I started Chaplains on the Harbor in September of 2013, on a hope and a prayer, while I was a deacon assigned in Aberdeen. After being away for the better part of a decade, I started this ministry very close to my own hometown, in the county I grew up. It is the kind of place that none of us who leave ever intend to come back. I didn’t expect to ever return.

But here I am. We split our time between Aberdeen and the little fishing town of Westport, where we have our church building. Grays Harbor County is one of the poorest counties in the state, with about half of our residents accessing social services to survive. We have the highest incarceration rates of minors for non-criminal offences in the country. We have hundreds of people on the streets and hundreds more couch surfing. It’s a place that has been poor and desperate for a very long time.

It is a place that finds it hard to hope. All the time, I hear people say how dark Aberdeen and the harbor feels. How difficult it is to survive there. Most of the folks we work with are in their 20s and 30s. They have grown up on the harbor, as our industries collapsed. Many of them went through the foster care system or through juvie. Most of them have been in and out of jail, on and off the streets, ever since. As I minister with people, as I am their pastor, on the streets, in the jails, in our community meals and services, we talk a lot about hope.

The gospel reading this morning is Luke’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is claiming this beautiful text in Isaiah to explain his mission.
To bring good news to the poor
To release prisoners
To heal the sick
To let the oppressed go free.

And he doesn’t preach this as some kind of glorious future. He stands in Nazareth, a poor village on top of a mountain, preaching to the folks he grew up with, a bunch of poor villagers and farmers. And he is bold enough to say; “Today.” This mission is now. Not in a future heaven. Not in a future kingdom. But now. Today. We can hope today.

The lectionary stops there for this week, but we have to note that the rest of the story doesn’t go so well.

You would think that this news that Jesus brings, this mission that he preaches would go over pretty well in Nazareth. But it doesn’t. When people realize what Jesus is saying, they get scared. And angry. They literally run Jesus out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

The message is too dangerous, too scary. They live under occupation and if they let Jesus keep preaching, they could be in danger. (And keep in mind: they are not wrong. Jesus is executed only a few years later). I wonder, too, if it is just too hard to hope. Too hard to hope that things can change. That was not the main response to Jesus’ teaching. Great crowds in Galilee follow him everywhere. But, for the folks in the synagogue that day, hope was too much, too dangerous to ask.

There are times that hope can seem too dangerous on the harbor. Poverty pits people against each other. People are afraid to speak out because they could go to jail or get picked up on their warrants or lose their apartment if they complain about how bad things are for them.

But, I have to say, as dark as things can get, most of what I see is courage. It takes so much courage to hope.

I walk with young moms who have been on the streets most of their lives, who fight for their children. They fight to get clean for their kids, they fight to find a place to live for their kids, they fight against impossible odds to try and regain custody and make a family they never had. It takes so much courage to hope.

I walk with young kids in jail—many of them in the their early 20s—kids with felonies for sleeping in abandoned buildings when its cold or self medicating with opiates for chronic pain or shoplifting—whatever it takes to survive-- and they fight to imagine a better life. Like small towns all over the country, there are few legitimate jobs and most of these kids have never had one. They dream of getting out and making a better life for themselves. It takes so much courage to hope.

I walk with elders and young people on the street as, this last year, they created Aberdeen’s first organized tent city. They were called names by the city, they’ve had police raids and giant rocks thrown at them, but they have stayed the course. They believe that the work that they do is important, that they are bringing the crisis of homelessness to the public eye and that they deserve to be part of building a better future. It takes so much courage to hope.

I walk with a community in Westport, a community where nearly 70% of the adult population is out of the workforce. People with disabilities, people who work in the canneries or clean fishing boats, people who live in trailer parks and abandoned buildings and in tents on the beach—all of us together build a community where we eat together and pray together and provide space for each other. We never do it perfectly and sometimes we drive each other crazy, but we are learning to love and care for each other. It takes so much courage to hope.

These are my heroes. These are the men and women who dare to hope. Who dare to imagine a world where the prisoners are free and the oppressed liberated. Who dare to stand up to city councils and public opinion and police raids. Who dare to hope. Who dare to do what the Nazareth community was not ready to do when Jesus first showed up. Who dare to do what Jesus led a whole rabble multitude to do in Galilee.  

We dare to hope.

Dr. Raheb, the pastor of that Lutheran community in Bethlehem, said that hope was like planting olive trees. He said; “We plant olive trees so that there will be trees for the children to play in. So that there will be oil to bind up their wounds. So that there will be branches to wave for the prince of peace.”

We hope like that. We eat together in the hope of a world where no one goes hungry. We visit each other in jail in the hope of a world where all our children are free. We worship together in the hope of a world where all are given the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God. We build community in the hope of a better world.

We dare to hope.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Marked and Sealed

Sermon: Baptism of our Lord

Most of baptisms I have performed have been in hospital rooms, with young mothers who sometimes have just moments with their babies before then lose custody. I use borrowed water. Moms promise to love God and their little one. I say the words of baptism and I give their babies the names their mama chose. Then, I trace a cross on their little foreheads and say those words; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever.”

I love those words. I love them because I usually never get to see these babies again. The state usually takes custody within hours. I know these little ones have a long road ahead and so do their moms.

It is some comfort to me to say those words; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

That as difficult as this little one’s life might be, another world is possible. Life is possible.

I think about the young people who ask me about baptism. The young woman in county jail who wants to be baptized.

Baptism is a kind of initiation. An initiation into the kingdom of God.  In our text, John introduces it as another way to live. The people who come to him for baptism—farmers and fisherfolk, tax collectors, soldiers—come looking to turn around. To find a new way to live in the middle of occupation. To be initiated into something different.

I think of all the ways that our children in Grays Harbor are initiated.

Sometimes as young as 10 or 11, children are initiated into a life of poverty and struggle in juvie. Here on the harbor, we have the highest rate of child incarceration—for non criminal offences— in the country.  Here, jail begins early. It is an initiation. I know young women who have been told from the time they are 12 or 13, by social workers, by judges, that they will never amount to anything. That they will never be anything more that drug addicted, knocked up mothers.
An initiation into a life of poverty and jail.

Gangs have initiation rituals, often violent ones, sometimes by proving your courage by letting gang members beat you up.
An initiation into a life of kill or be killed, of dealing on the black market and trafficking drugs, of surviving in a world that is hard to survive.

So many initiations. The moment our children realize no one is on their side. The moment mothers realize they cannot keep their children. The moment people really start to believe they have no future.

I am sure first century Palestine, just like 21st century Palestine, had its own initiations like that.

So, in all this suffering and all these initiations, baptism is a different kind of initiation.

First, its an initiation into a world where God cares. None of my young folks on the street believe that anyone cares for them. And sometimes they are right. But, in baptism, we say that God cares. We proclaim a faith in a God who says through Isaiah; “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Few people on the street have their birth names, sometimes by fate, sometimes by choice. But baptism proclaims a faith in a God who knows your true name.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” In jail, in prison, chained or free, on the streets, in cold tents, couch surfing with people you barely know, in the hospital, dying, escaping death—those are the waters. Death is everywhere. Last week, I stood at the bedside of a young man who very narrowly escaped death. Everyone on the streets knows the waters. But a God who is with them, with us, who does not judge, but cares; who knows death with us, who died once with us—that is a radical God.

Baptism acknowledges the death around us. But even in the middle of the terror, it initiates us—ALL OF US—into a different life.

Into a different sort of kingdom. A kingdom that John preaches, a kingdom where soldiers and tax collectors stop exploiting people and poor people share with each other, a kingdom where everyone has enough and poor people don’t end up locked up or slaughtered.

We are baptized into death. We die to the empire and all its desires. We die to greed. We die to caring only for ourselves.

In a world that tells us to hoard all we have, we rise to share with each other.

In a world that tells us to only look after ourselves, we rise to love each other in real and tangible ways.

In a world that constructs prisons for children, we rise to struggle with them for their freedom and release.

In a world that calls too many of us trash and worthless, we rise to leadership in the kingdom of God.

We rise. We rise with a God who cares into a community that takes care of each other.

Today we celebrate the “baptism of our Lord.” Only, in Luke, the focus is on Jesus as just one of many who get baptized. So, this is a day to remember our baptism. To remember that we die to the world as it is, in all of its greed and cruelty. To remember that we rise to new life, in the company of a God who cares, in the hope of a better world, here and now.

As we celebrate a renewal of our baptismal vows this morning, I am going to be thinking of moms crying in hospital beds and tiny babies carried off, only held long enough to be baptized and named. I am going to be thinking of the young people who crave baptism in jail, who are dying, literally, for a better world. I am going to be thinking of the vows we say, to love God and each other and to respect the dignity of every human being.

And, above all, I am going to be thinking of those words, said over each of our heads and the heads of those I love; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever.”