I was invited to preach yesterday (Sunday, August 29) for the Old Catholic Church of St. Anthony in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Though I am Unitarian Universalist, the congregation is not, and so I based my sermon on the lectionary reading from Luke, included below.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you here today. My name is Leslie Mills, and I am a second year student at United Theological Seminary.
My friend and colleague, Father Ron Johnson, asked me to come and speak with you earlier this summer about my travels to Chiapas, Mexico and the justice work I did down there. We had to delay until today because it suddenly turned out that my travels were not over.
But first, let me start by telling you about Chiapas.
Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico; it shares a border with Guatemala. It took our class three flights and a bus ride to get to San Cristobal de las Casas, located in central Chiapas in the mountain highlands. We found ourselves in a city of contradictions.
Cars and buses careened along narrow one-way streets that were paved in cobblestones; they had originally been designed for horse and pedestrian traffic, because the city had been founded 500 years ago.
Our hotel was comfortable and clean and well-maintained. Breakfast was served in the festive dining room every morning, and our rooms were cleaned by the maids while we were out during the day. Outside the door of the hotel, packs of feral dogs wandered the streets, and little boys who should have been in school were instead selling little clay animals out of a basket to help their families afford food.
Dark-skinned women, neatly dressed in their traditional finery, would wait in the lobby, trying to sell us scarves and bracelets, haggling in broken English. A short bus ride away, in a town called Chamula, barefooted children with open sores on their faces tried to sell us the same things for a fraction of the price. I noticed their English was much better than that of the nicely dressed ladies in the city. It had to be, for them to survive.
Amid all of this, tourists flitted from shop to shop, blind to the need that surrounded them. They tended to stay within certain boundaries, where the streets—and the urchins that inhabited them—were pretty and clean.
Meanwhile, our class stretched our own boundaries as we visited with various groups and organizations that are trying to mend the torn fabric of Chiapas.
We met with the Zapatistas, an organization of indigenous Mayan people who are publicly struggling for basic human rights. All they want is education; health care; land rights; democracy; liberty; freedom; justice; peace. All they want are the rights that their government has denied them for 500 years.
We met with SIPAZ, the International Service for Peace, which was formed in 1995 in response to the Zapatista uprising of 1994. SIPAZ provides a constant presence to monitor the conflict in Chiapas.
Because there is conflict everywhere in Chiapas, hidden from the tourists who come there to spend their money. When we flew in, the first vehicle I saw in the parking lot was a truck full of Mexican soldiers. As we drove away from the airport, we passed under a sign that read, “Bienvenido a Chiapas!” Welcome to Chiapas. As we rounded a bend in the road, we came upon a military blockade. Other cars were stopped. We were waved through. The faces in those other cars were brown. We had passed muster because we were white.
That wasn’t the only time we saw military barricades, just the first. As we met with various speakers, we learned that there are currently more Mexican soldiers occupying their own state of Chiapas than there are American soldiers occupying Afghanistan. And Chiapas is one-ninth the size of Afghanistan. There were soldiers everywhere.
We met with a village who told us that 45 of their loved ones—including infants—had been massacred by the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting and serving them.
This is what it felt like to be in a police state.
When I got home at the end of June, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly was being held right here in Minneapolis, and I was a delegate.
I sat in the plenary audience and heard for the first time about SB1070, the anti-immigration legislation that would be going into effect in Arizona on July 29th. Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Phoenix called the assembled congregations to come and bear witness and fight the injustice of this law. She told us that the people of Phoenix were living in a state of fear; that peaceful families were being torn apart because of a lack of bureaucratic paperwork; that racial profiling was already rampant in the sheriff’s department, and that these laws would only legalize it.
I knew I had to go. After spending my summer witnessing the atrocities that are being perpetrated down in Mexico, I couldn’t justify staying home when there are human rights violations happening in my own country. After seeing what conditions are like in Mexico, I could only feel compassion for the people who risked everything to come to this country and try to make a better life for themselves and their families.
In our gospel reading from Luke today, we are presented with a question:
What does it mean to give someone else our place at the banquet table?
It means taking their place.
We can only give someone else our place if we are willing to take theirs.
So what did this mean for my trip to Phoenix?
The law enforcement in Phoenix has two jurisdictions. One is the Phoenix police force. The other is the Maricopa Country Sheriff’s Department, headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
When SB1070 was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe announced his intention to do sweeps and raids on July 29th. By that, he meant that he was going to send deputies and civilian volunteers into neighborhoods that had brown people in them. They would knock on doors and convince the resident that it was lawful for them to enter without a permit. And then they would make up a charge and arrest as many of those brown people as they could. The plan was to fill the jails that day.
Because Sheriff Joe is paid per prisoner. For every warm body in the jail, Sheriff Joe gets a chunk of taxpayer money.
So here we were: a determined band of mostly white folks. How do we give sanctuary to the poor, the needy, the scared, the persecuted? How do we offer them our place of honor at the banquet table?
We take their place.
We organized a group action of civil disobedience in order to stand on the side of love with our immigrant brothers and sisters who are living in fear in Phoenix.
There were two parts to our action. First, my group blocked the intersection in front of Sheriff Joe’s office. We spread a banner declaring this area a human rights zone, and as the police slowly moved in and surrounded us, we sat and linked arms, singing a song of peace and love. One by one, they escorted us away. On July 29th, twenty clergy were defrocked by the police in the middle of the street.
Meanwhile at the jail, more clergy and some college students had chained themselves in a hard blockade across the entrance to the jail. It was the sheriff’s department that came after them, in full riot gear—face masks, plexiglass shields, body armor, batons. The protesters were forcibly dragged backwards into the jail. Many were bruised and bleeding.
Meanwhile, the crowds were chanting: Show me what a police state looks like! This is what a police state looks like!
What does it mean to give someone else our place at the banquet table? It means taking their place.
Because of our actions that day, Sheriff Joe could not conduct his raids. Our public action drew international media attention. Sheriff Joe had to divert his resources to arresting and processing the protesters rather than brown people in their homes. It took all day for him to deal with us, and there were other protests and arrests over the next couple of days to keep him busy.
And even if the sheriff had had the free time to go raiding, the jail was filled to overflowing; there was nowhere to put the brown people.
We had taken their place, and in so doing, had given them our place of honor; they were allowed to stay home with their families for at least a little while longer.
The night we spent in jail was a blessed time, because we offered ourselves in a way that our immigrant brothers and sisters cannot pay back. We offered ourselves in their place out of love, and they gave us love in return.
After spending twenty-six hours in a small cement room, we emerged, blinking, into the sunlight.
And they were waiting for us. All night they had vigiled. As our release drew closer, they began to drum and sing and pray—and even deep in that cement jail, we could hear them, demanding our release. And when we came out, they surrounded us with love and gratitude, weeping, hugging, offering us water bottles, use of their cell phones, a ride to wherever we needed to go.
In the streets of Phoenix that day, I witnessed beloved community. And if it was possible there, then I believe it is possible anywhere.
So I invite you to reflect today. What place of honor do you hold? And how might you offer someone else your place at the banquet table?
It doesn’t have to land you in jail, or draw media attention. It just has to be an act of love and kindness that cannot be repaid. And you will be blessed.
Namaste. So may it be. Amen.