By Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, Salt and Light Lutheran Church, Portland, OR (Sunday, August 2), Matthew 14:13-21
Jesus, a young movement leader, desperate to be alone, grieving, raging, mourning the state-sponsored murder of his cousin, John. A crowd gathers. Thousands upon thousands. They are there so long, learning and listening and longing for change, that it gets late into the night and they are hungry. Some want to say, go home! Fend for yourselves! Go to the store and buy your own food! You’re on your own! But that is not The Way of Jesus. That is not The Way of this movement. And suddenly, seemingly miraculously, food for thousands appears. And the hungry are fed. They feed one another. Because when the system fails or it isn’t designed to care for you in the first place, you have to care for one another. And from that place, create a new way of being in the world.
Every day, every night since George Floyd’s murder the crowds have gathered. Grieving. Raging. Speaking. Singing. Teaching. Mourning George Floyd and the countless deaths of black bodied human beings at the hands of the police and the systems of the state. Sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. In Portland, every day for 65 days now. And when the federal agents descended almost three weeks ago under the pretense of quelling the “riots taking over Portland,” thousands upon thousands more came out in defense of Black Lives, and in defense of the right to raise grievances with the government freely and without fear of state violence.
The nights have been long. The risks have been great. And people have gotten hungry. On July 4, ten days or so before the Federal agents showed up, Lorenzo showed up at the protest downtown. Lorenzo, a former Black Panther, came with the intention of giving a speech at the protest and sharing some BBQ. He stayed until 8:00am the next morning. Through six rounds of tear gas. He thought he was going to die.
But he did not die.
Instead, Riot Ribs was born.
For almost a month, a group of mostly houseless volunteers grilled ribs, hamburgers, brats, hot dogs. They served corn, watermelon, macaroni salad, potato salad and coleslaw. One night the federal agents and Portland Police raided their tents, opened up all their food bags, sprayed all their grills with pepper spray. Everything was destroyed. All the food had to be thrown out.
That night…Riot Ribs was back! Donations poured in. $330,000 in donations! Grills! Supplies! food! Riot Ribs was back feeding houseless protestors and housed protestors, visitors and neighbors alike.
24 hours a day. Seven days a week. All free.
Their philosophy? “Eat til you’re full.”
“And taking five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. And all those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.”
I don’t know about you, but one way I learned to read the scriptures was to try to find myself in the text. To read a story and ask myself, with whom do I identify in this story? Where do I see myself in this story? It can be a powerful way to engage these ancient texts. And, in fact, it can teach us a lot, not only about the text, but about ourselves — our privilege, our blind spots — who do we identify with and why?
One of the roots of this way of reading scripture is in Latin American Christian base communities, the birth places of liberation theology. The disenfranchised poor read the scripture together and discovered that the God of Jesus the Jew was the God of the poor, the God who calls them beloved when the world despised them, the God who fills the hungry with good things.
This is indeed a powerful way to read the text.
It also has its limitations. When white supremacy has literally painted whiteness onto brown skinned biblical characters and has dominated biblical translation and interpretation, how much more work do black and brown skinned people have to do to see themselves in the text?
And when there are literally 1,770 named men in the Bible compared to…are you ready?…93 named women…how much denying our own embodiedness do women and LGBTQ folks have to do to find ourselves in the text? We can see this patriarchal dominance in the lesson for today. Though our Inclusive Bible reads, “about five thousand families were fed,” almost every other translation reads, “the number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” As if women and children are an afterthought, an irritating irrelevance to the lives of men.
But this is not the only way to read sacred text. In fact, LaVeta began this season after Pentecost sharing about the resurrection she saw in the movement arising from George Floyd’s murder. And in that sermon she showed us another way to read scripture. And it’s just the opposite. It is not to try to find ourselves in the sacred, ancient text, but to discover the ancient text in the sacred stories of our lives. To discover the ancient text in the sacred stories of Life.
Friends of mine attest to the power of the experience of that sacred communal feeding at Riot Ribs. And though I never tasted those myself, I smelled them. I witnessed the volunteers grilling. Serving. Caring.
It was Thursday night over a week ago when I felt my soul calling me to go down to the Justice Center. Peter had been to many of the bigger Black Lives Matter protests in June. I had gone to some of the smaller ones. We always tag teamed so one of us would be home with our youngest son.
And I have certainly been to countless protests in my life before. But never before had I had to wear an N95 mask plus another one on top of it — not because of Covid, but because of the potential for tear gas. Never before had I had to don my son’s old skateboarding helmet and kids’ scuba googles to protect myself from “rubber” bullets that could crack people’s skulls. Never before had I been to a protest where I was handed a shield made of (appropriately, in a stereotypical kind of way), a cookie sheet and duct tape. It was surreal.
I went to join what was then known as the Wall of Moms, what is now called Moms United for Black Lives. I didn’t imagine that my presence was going to make a difference, exactly. But I went because something inside me said I needed to go.
I won’t lie and pretend that I wasn’t afraid. I actually went, in part, BECAUSE I was afraid. I went because I am aware that fear can keep White people — can keep me — silent. And so part of the journey of dismantling racism for me is the journey of dismantling fear within myself.
I also went because I knew that I hadn’t felt IN MY BODY the fear of being in the presence of armed, uniformed, unaccountable agents of the state who were not there to protect me. Who, pardon my French, didn’t give a shit about me or the moms or the dads or the vets or the journalists or the rib grillers or anyone. Whereas this BODILY fear is a daily reality for Black and brown people.
So I went with a friend and her friend. And just so you know (spoiler alert) by 12:15am, when they had not yet come out with tear gas and pepper spray despite their warnings, I did decide it was time to go home.
But until that time I did not know what would happen. And I was nervous. And if you remember the scripture verse that says, “pray without ceasing,” I was doing that. But what that really meant, was that I was continually asking for God’s presence and guidance, and then just noticing. Paying attention. I was paying attention to everything I was seeing and hearing, thinking and feeling.
And in that noticing, I began to have eyes to see the sacredness of life unfolding around me. I began to see the moment as a scriptural moment. I was not trying to find myself in the ancient text, but discovering the ancient text in everything that was happening around and within me.
Several times that night I felt what the apostle Paul calls, “the peace that passes all understanding.”
I felt it as I received the kindness and generosity of the anarchist friend of my friend who gave me a ride, and who generously offered me an extra mask and knee pads and that homemade cookie sheet shield. I felt it as he showed us the specific places we would meet up — one spot if there’s no tear gas, and a different spot farther away if it was really bad. I felt it as he patiently talked me through the patterns and dynamics he had witnessed, and answered all my ignorant questions.
I felt it at one point when I was standing at the end of the line of the Wall of Moms and I turned and there next to me an older Black man was standing, a walking stick in each hand. My first thought was, my God, how is he going to get out of here quickly and safely? And then that peace washed over me when I heard the words within me, “Solveig, that’s why you’re here.” Just like Jesus saying to the disciples, “if they need food, YOU feed them!” I heard, “If he needs help, YOU help him.” Not as a hero, but as a human. Because the systems designed to protect and serve, don’t protect and serve him. That’s why you’re here.
And I felt the peace that passes all understanding wash over me when the speaker shouted in the microphone,
“Portland, are you scared?” To which we all responded, “I’m not scared!” “Portland, are you scared?” “I’m not scared!”
“Portland, are you scared?” “I’m not scared!”
An angel of the Lord proclaiming the most consistent message throughout scripture — “Be not afraid.”
And I felt the peace that passes all understanding around 11:00 that night. That’s when I originally had planned to go home. The next day was a work day for me after all. But when my friend checked in with me about whether I wanted to stay or go, I couldn’t decide. I was wrestling. I was scared to stay. I had the option to leave. I didn’t know what to do.
And then an image came to me. A flash from a movie I had seen several times, but I hadn’t thought of it for years. The movie was called Son of Man, and it was Jesus’ life story set in apartheid South Africa. The scene that flashed through my mind was all the beloveds of Jesus, torn apart in grief and gathered in the presence of Jesus’ broken and bloodied body. And soon the police come in riot gear to break up this “unlawful assembly.”
And Jesus’ mama, Mary, sees them. And starts singing. And the whole community rises up — resurrects! — moves their bodies together, raises their voices together, armed only with the fierce power of Love, and staring down the fierce, armed power of the State. The resurrection had begun!
And I chose to stay.
Praying without ceasing. Paying attention. Discovering the ancient, sacred texts in the movements in our lives.
As we move into the Green Season in the coming weeks, we are not so much shifting focus as deepening our focus. Deepening our awareness. Looking not so much to find ourselves in the sacred texts but looking to discover the sacredness of the human lives around us. The sacredness of other than human lives around us. The sacredness of the connections between us. The sacredness of Life itself. The sacredness of the movements, and the sacredness of a plate of ribs, and the sacredness of the places where everyone can eat til they’re full. Amen.