"Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!"
170 years ago, Fredrick Douglas spoke those words on the 4th of July. He spoke 10 years before the abolition of slavery, as a black man, to a group of women abolitionists in the north. He spoke during a time when about 15% of the American population was enslaved. He, a former slave himself, partnered with courageous people like Harriet Tubman and others to free his people.
This is a time of year in our nation where we talk a lot about freedom. When we quote the declaration of independence that says that all men are created equal and deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In the passage we just read, as Jesus spells out his mission, his work, as Jesus delivers his first sermon in his hometown, Jesus talks about liberation, about being free.
He came to…
Preach good news to the poor
The announce freedom to prisoners
To heal and restore sight to the blind
And to “set the oppressed free”, or as the version we read this morning says, “to set the burdened and the battered free.”
The words that strike me most, in my work in this place, is that last phrase. “To set the burdened and the battered free.” That of course was the dream of Fredrick Douglas when he set out to free his people. It is my dream too.
I see a lot of battered bodies and burdened hearts on the harbor. I too long for the liberation of our people.
And I think about what Jesus did. He gathered up the battered and burdened and he built a movement with them. He told them they would save the world. And he told the religious leaders and the upstanding citizens to join them, to accept their leadership. That was Jesus’ good news.
It was that movement that Jesus built that would inspire people like Fredrick Douglas years later. Perhaps that movement can still hold power now, for us, here on the harbor, here in Aberdeen.
Jesus is specific about what kind of freedom, what kind of liberation he brings. Freedom to prisoners, healing to the sick, liberation to the battered and broken. I think about the stories I hear here on the harbor every day—stories you know, stories you might live. I think about our own battered and broken people. Many of them have lost so much: family members, homes, jobs, health. We carry deep scars. We have lost children. We are in and out of jail or prison. We experience deep and constant trauma. So many of us are very young—did you know that 52% of Aberdeen is under 35?
A few months ago, we hosted an event here at Amazing Grace, offering people the chance to tell their stories. Because we believe that the building of movements begins with the telling of untold stories.
Your parish hall was packed to overflowing. We ate 80 lbs of fried chicken. And people started sharing their stories. They told about police beatings and jail stints, they told about losing children, they told about how hard it is to get jobs, they talked about daily assaults on their dignity, they talked about how hard it was to find social services, they talked about losing everything.
We clapped harder than we have ever clapped for the bravery of people telling their stories. We cried and we laughed. In a community where nearly 50% of our people experience poverty and where almost 1500 are counted as homeless (in a rural county), this is the first time an event has been held like this. What struck me the most about this event was the amazing courage of the people I am privileged to serve and honored to know. They were my heroes—willing to tell hard stories out loud to those in power, willing to work for change at considerable risk to themselves. They dreamed of a movement. For a moment, we dreamed of freedom and liberation.
I see so much pain and trauma in this ministry, in this town, as so many of us have experienced, as people are cut off from access to basic needs and basic resources. But I also see such amazing courage. The battered and the broken, in the end, will inherit the earth as Jesus said. I see it in the courageous little family who are struggling for a decent wage job and home after piecing their life back together after baby came. I see it in the very young, very vulnerable woman trying to survive solitary confinement. I see it in a young street hustler who has lost everything and is still trying again to find a way out. I see it in the aging logger who tries to offer counseling to the young folks on the street. I see it in the elderly man who tried to offer safe haven for a young and vulnerable gay man.
There is a man in jail right now, looking forward in his life, dreaming of something new, not just for himself, but for his community. He dreams of creating jobs with a restaurant that would be open, not just for the town, but also for anyone who needed a meal. In the middle of great trauma, and so much struggle, there are dreams coming out of the jails Jesus says he came to open.
In our community and church in Westport, aging surfers run the community garden and homeless kids cook meals for the whole community and we dream together of a better world. In the middle of a town where 71% of the adult population is either unemployed or out of the workforce, I watch people work to take care of each other. Learn to respect each other. Dream of a better world. Every Friday, we gather for our popular education program (the School of Hard Knocks) and we often skype with or exchange videos with poor people all over the country and the world—we talk with homeless organizers in Budapest and with Muslim communities in New York and homeless leaders in Salinas, CA. And we dream together.
I can’t shake off the feeling that this is the good news for the poor that Jesus is talking about. That this is what Jesus meant by building a movement of poor and desperate people, of bruised and battered people, so many years ago in Galilee.
That this is what it looks like in Aberdeen WA in 2016.
When I look over our room full of young people and elders, all struggling, all trying to survive, I think; “These people, these courageous, amazing people will save us. The church is not here to save them. They are here to save us.”
As we approach the 4th, that holiday that we in the US talk so much about freedom and about liberty, I want to think about this liberation that Jesus brings. This good news for and by the poor. This liberation for the broken bodied and brokenhearted.
And what it would mean for us, for the church, for us here and now in Aberdeen, to join that movement for liberation? What it would mean for us to sit at the feet of the folks brave enough to tell their stories here in your parish hall? What it would mean to have a movement for change led by the men and women who dream in jail cells that Jesus wants to open?
Nazareth was too afraid to do it. Too afraid perhaps of Rome, of Jesus, of the risk, of the possibility. Are we?