Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: Privilege and the Gospel.
Keywords: privilege, widow’s mite, kenotic hymn, seat at the table, to whom much is given, not to be served but to serve, step aside.
There are a couple of different versions of a story,
but the general outlines are the same:
there’s a teacher lecturing in a public place—
the main school and civic building in the city
and the teacher has become famous.
He’s provocative, and edgy, and iconoclastic.
The teacher is talking about their country
their congregations and their communities.
He’s upset that people take advantage of one another,
using their positions of authority and responsibility to profit from them
instead of using that authority and that responsibility
to make the lives of ordinary people better.
How dare they? That’s not right.
That’s not what our rules, our laws say is supposed to happen.
It is not okay to take advantage of people.
It’s enough to make any preacher jealous. Know what I mean?
And some other people too, apparently, were jealous, too,
those very people in positions of authority and responsibility.
They were not happy,
so they come up to him and started challenging him.
What gives you the right, man?
Who said you could come in here and talk about us like that…
And, so the story goes,
the teacher didn’t blink an eye.
He fends them off.
He says he’ll answer their questions if they can answer one of his first:
John, you know, that guy who baptized all those people in the desert,
was John doing that because God was with him, guiding him, empowering him,
or was he doing all that on his own…?
And they really couldn’t answer him,
because this was a public spectacle by now.
The bystanders all had their cell phones out
and they were recording video, ready to upload to facebook and twitter and insta
and the accusers were worried,
because the crowds loved John.
They loved him.
Dude lived in the desert and ate locusts and wild honey
and sought to serve people, love people, heal people, point them to God
and if they answered the way they truly felt
they didn’t like John, and didn’t think God was on HIS side, come on, really?
if they answered that way the crowds would turn on them for sure.
So they didn’t answer. They were silent.
And the teacher kind of smiled at that,
and told the crowds a little story
and kept right on teaching.
They tried again: they sent people to try to trap him in the same sort of question—
Hey Jesus, you teach the way of God and the truth.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
They figured, hey, the people with their cell phones recording all this
they hate taxes, they hate the emperor,
the Romans are making their lives miserable
so we got him, just like he tried to get us with that painful question about John.
And the teacher reached for a coin,
and asked those around him: “Whose picture is on this thing”
“The Emperor’s mug is on that coin”, the crowd answered.
Give to the emperor what is the emperor.
Give to God what is God’s…
Oh, snap. Goes the crowd.
Did you see that?
And you can see why they were delighted by all of this.
And those people who tried to trap him,
the stories all say, they fell silent.
They didn’t try anything more after that,
not for a little while at least.
And the teacher kept on teaching…
and started digging in a bit more
on those people of power and authority
going so far, once, to say this:
“In the hearing of all the people, Jesus said to the disciples:
‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes
and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
and to have the best seats in the synagogues
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.
They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Which was a quite astonishing thing to say
about the scribes, who were well respected
essential in everyday society
without whom business and education and daily life would kind of grind to a halt.
Most people didn’t know how to write, after all,
and the scribes kept the whole economy going.
And apparently, they knew it.
Or at least felt that they deserved to be treated well because of it.
And then the teacher is done, and he sits down,
over by the treasury,
where there is a large crowd just sitting there
and everyone is watching people come up and
make their tithes and offerings to the temple.
Can you imagine it?
Everyone sitting around for sport, watching the gifts that people make to charity?
And the story ends
with Jesus looking up
and seeing rich people striding up with their gifts,
proud and pretentious and loving it,
one by one by one.
But look, here is something different.
It is a widow. She looks, well, poor.
Her clothes, her gait, everything about her shows she’s out of place.
But she’s determined.
She walks up, and places two copper coins in the box
and they rattle around in there with a loud noise
like they don’t quite fit.
And the teacher is astonished.
Look! He says.
Truly, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;
for they have contributed out of their abundance,
but she out of poverty has put in all she had to live on…”
Some people call that last part of the story the Lesson of the Widow’s mite.
It is found in the Gospels of Mark and of Luke,
the end of a full day of teaching by Jesus.
A mite was the name of the coin that she put into the treasury box.
It was the smallest coin,
“the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Judea,
worth about six minutes of an average daily wage…”
That was all that she had to live on…
We refer to it sometimes when we sing the song Take my life and let it Be,
with the lyric: Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold
Take my intellect and use, every Power as thou shalt choose,
every power as thou shalt choose…
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
at Thy feet it’s Treasure Store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever Only All for Thee. Ever Only All for Thee…
One of the things that got Jesus into trouble
was how he was not afraid to take on powerful people,
their pride and their hubris
and their use of power to get what they want, at the expense of others..
But Jesus was an equal opportunity critic, it seems to me,
when you look more deeply into it.
It wasn’t just those scribes, or the pharisees,
or the wealthy who were watching each other’s charitable donations for sport.
Jesus also turned his flashlight to examine the hearts of those closest to him.
Karen read a story today about the disciples jockeying for power.
Worried about their seats at the table
wanting to sit at the right and the left hand of their beloved leader Jesus.
Two of them had a mother who could walk right in
and see what strings that she could pull.
Maybe you’ve seen the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs,
and like me, when you heard Karen reading this story,
you saw in your minds eye Beverly Goldberg,
taking care of her three kids
marching into the principal’s office
or to her son’s boss at work
or her daughter’s boyfriend’s house
to give someone a piece of her mind.
Come on, Jesus, my boys are the best boys
let them sit at your right hand….
which is Bible speak for “give my boys the best jobs,
the really great opportunities,
do it for me, Jesus….”
You do not know what you are asking for…
Jesus could only say to her, rolling his eyes.
for whoever wants to be great, in my world, in God’s world,
must become a servant,
and give up all that aspiration, all that glory, all that status,
all that privilege that the world gives out…
The son of man came not to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many….
Today’s significant question is about “Privilege”.
What do you think about when you hear that term?
What is privilege?
Privilege is some advantage that you have,
you or a group you belong to,
earned or unearned, known or maybe something you don’t even recognize.
The topic that was submitted for this sermon series
just said that one word—privilege
and it certainly fits,
because Jesus taught and preached and worked a lot to point out the problems
with unrecognized, uncritical privilege.
Someone said this week:
to have a privilege means you get to go to the front of the line
which is as good a way as any to put it.
There was one year, for instance,
that I flew so much that I was Gold Status on United Airlines.
Gold Status. It even sounds like privilege.
Not quite as much as Platinum Status does, but Gold.
And it was sweet: you certainly board the plane first
and get a little extra leg room
and you feel a bit more important, too,
because you got that prized overhead bin space
and you watch other people get on after you
even though you’re in the same tin can that everyone else is in.
A sermon about privilege has the potential
of being a hard sermon for us to hear,
because we are all people with a certain amount of privilege,
and some of us have a lot of privilege.
Jesus has some critical things to say about this,
and we don’t do well hearing that sort of thing.
We have the potential of either tuning out, or getting defensive when we talk about it.
I’m not sure that we should, though.
To say that there are privileges in our world
that there are some who get those, and some who don’t,
is like talking about the air we breathe. It is just our reality.
We can take it personally, or we can try to understand it
and think about what we might do about it.
I don’t know if it is obvious,
but some of the sermons I write are mainly written to myself.
They’re the kind of things that I know I need to hear.
And maybe you might hear something faithful in them too.
Certainly a sermon about privilege fits this type of sermon,
a sermon written to myself,
and not just because I made Gold Status one year on United.
I’m well educated, and male, and white, and straight,
and protestant (which still opens quite a few doors these days).[i]
I’m a home owner. I don’t worry where my next meal will come from.
I’m able bodied and a hard worker and have made good choices most of my life,
choices that were supported by laws and an economy that rewards such things.
By some fate I was born in Louisville, Kentucky,
not Honduras or Angola or Bangladesh or the Solomon Islands,
nor, this week, lets say the Bahamas,
to parents who were married and still are today,
who doted over my education and showered me with affection
and worried about my self esteem
and helped me focus enough to get into a good college.
I have insurance and a pension and a savings account.
I’ve never been followed around a store by someone thinking I was going to shoplift.
I don’t worry very much, that, if my kids are pulled over by police for speeding,
if I am ever pulled over for speeding,
that the interaction is going to go badly for some reason.
I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from,
insulted for the language that I speak,
or the way that I pray,
or mocked because of the way that I dress.
Most of the time, people will listen to my arguments and give them fair consideration.
In almost every category, I am about as privileged as they come.
And some of that I may have worked hard to attain,
and other parts of that I did nothing to earn, or merit, or acquire,
it just happened,
maybe even without me thinking about it at all
which itself is a sort of privilege, when you think about it.
And, for most of us, even when life is hard
and we struggle with an income or with work or with relationships
we nevertheless have many benefits, alongside those struggles,
and often resent people telling us about those benefits,
because the struggles are real. And they are.
But we still live in a county awash with privilege
and we all gain some of it just because of that.
Are these bad things though?
A savings account? A good education? A good home?
Not worrying about being stereotyped as a shoplifter in a store
or whether an interaction with the police is going to go badly?
No, they’re not. The point isn’t to start tearing it all down.
But Jesus went a long way to challenge us when we start leaning on our privilege
and don’t recognize that everyone ought to have a good education,
and a good home
and opportunities for a savings account
and not being branded a thief for no real reason other than the color of their skin.
Jesus did a lot of work here.
He lifted up the widow, dropping those two mites in the coffers
because he knew that the people watching all this didn’t think
that she had given more than they had, even though she had
she gave EVERYTHING.
He told stories about parties where the poor and the outcast
were welcome to sit at the table
he said that people who were given 10 talents were expected to put those resources
to good use, for God’s use
he said “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
Jesus told his disciples that the work they would have to accomplish
meant giving up, not getting the best seat on the airplane.
Jesus’ lesson—whether it was to the powerful pharisees and scribes,
to his disciples, to the crowds, to anyone with ears to hear—
seemed to be that we need to be aware of our power and our privilege,
and where we have it, to give it away,
to use it constructively,
so that other people without it can have a flourishing human life too,
to step back so that other people can step up
to give up the powerful position, so that other people can share in it.
And Paul, Paul, when talking about Jesus,
made the point about how Jesus was of the SAME form and likeness as God herself
the very same,
but didn’t see THAT as something to be exploited
but emptied himself, Jesus did,
taking the form of a servant,
obedient all the way even to the cross…
Jesus, Paul says, was the most privileged of all, in a sense
and Jesus leveraged that power and that privilege to serve others,
particularly the poor and the oppressed and the hurting and the suffering
and the estranged from God,
and in doing so, Jesus opened the door to eternal life for everyone.
This is something that mattered a lot to Jesus.
He wanted us to stop jockeying for position,
to stop flaunting our advantages and our successes
and to start building up relationships and loving one another.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me what we can do
to help out in these stressful times.
The best answer I can think of might be to look to Jesus
and to think about the ways we might do like him, the best we can.
Ask ourselves: what are the advantages that I have?
What are the things I might not see. that log in my own eye,
that gives me a leg up, or a benefit,
or that keeps other people struggling.
And then what I can do to expand access just a little bit, and step out of the way?
What can I do to use my particular strengths and gifts and advantages
for the good of others?
I want to end on a positive note,
an example of how we can see this and use it and turn our privilege upside down.
I was going through some old video on my computer,
and came across this news story, also about a widow,
and about three men, and a recognition of the privilege of belonging, of connection,
that they could do something about.
Here’s the video:
Thanks be to God for people who seek to cross human boundaries
so that we might get to know one another, love one another, and grow together,
into the realm of God.
Jesus came to break down our human structures
that advances some at the expense of others,
so that ALL may know God’s peace and God’s safety.
May we understand how privilege works in our world, in our own life,
the kinds of advantages that we each may have,
and how we might not only give God thanks for how they help make life more secure,
but seek to give those away so that others may live and thrive.
May we seek to understand that all we have, in the end, comes from God,
the God who made us and loves us and encourages us all,
so that, together, we might make God’s realm possible.
May it be so.
Image: He Qi “The Widow’s Offering”. See https://www.heqiart.com
[i] There are a lot of people these days writing and thinking about privilege, and one of the first steps for those of us with privilege is to learn more about it, how it works, why we don’t see our privilege as much as we should, and what we can do about it. The responsibility for this lies with those with privilege, not for those without to educate those with. One foundational piece for my own understanding was the 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” a summary of which is available at https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf (accessed on September 6, 2019)