Proper 27 Year B
Back when I first started seminary in 2007, I never imagined we would be living in the reality we are facing today — a world in which income inequality would reach record levels. A world where we would need to be out in the streets with great frequency, protesting a philosophy of governance that aggressively puts the greed of the few ahead of the needs of the many. I also did not realize at the time that seminary was preparing me for these challenges, mostly by allowing me to meet people who would change my life forever. One such person is my friend charlee, a woman who became like a sister to me — and a person who grew up with a vastly different life experience than mine.
I mention her now because she was instrumental in equipping me for this moment in history. Back then, she was unmarried, had no kids, and was teaching religion and social justice at Hunter College. I, on the other hand, had been married for many years, and was the primary caregiver for 2 kids; my eldest had just started high school. When I first went to seminary, I had not been to a protest in a long time — not since the apartheid marches in the 80s. But that was pretty tame in comparison to what was happening at Union. Students helping organize restaurant workers in Manhattan. Students being arrested outside the School of the Americas in Georgia. One of the jokes at Union was that we would get emails almost weekly about protests happening near (and sometimes far) from us with the following instructions: If you are planning to join the protest, and do NOT want to get arrested, please do A and B. If you DO want to get arrested, then do C and D. The concept of “planning to get arrested” was certainly new for me.
But not for charlee. When we first started seminary, she had already experienced being arrested, having partaken in the actions against the Republican National Convention here in NYC in 2004. I will admit, I felt some envy. What was it like to believe in something so much that you were willing to put your body on the line in that way? Should I try it? Had I missed my time?
But here’s the thing — charlee knew that Aidan was 14 and Anna was 11. She knew that I was going to seminary part time because I always had to get back to the Bronx to pick them up at school by 3:20. So she would look at me sternly and say, “yeah, no, you don’t get to do that. Because those kids depend on you right now. But don’t worry, your turn will come.”
Well, how right she was. Fast forward to 2011 — when Occupy Wall Street happened. Charlee had already graduated, and she had a new baby. Both of my kids were in school in other states. Suddenly, I was the one who was going to protests, and she was at home — watching me with envy. Her daughter, my god-daughter, is 9 now, and charlee still listens with interest when I tell her about the marches and protests I am attending. So necessary in these difficult times. And now it’s my turn to say, “Don’t worry, your time will come again soon.”
But here’s the thing — there’s more than one way to protest. And that’s a reality that charlee and I talk about often right now. As we have seen this past 2 years, there are indeed marches and arrests, but there are also phone calls and organizing and get out the vote drives and texting voters and gathering together in community to actually see and hear and know each other better. Charlee has moved to Colorado, and let me tell you, just living your life openly as a Sufi Muslim in Colorado Springs, a military town, takes courage indeed. Sometimes just surviving is a form of protest.
We hear that same kind of insight in our gospel text today. Because there’s more than one way to read the story of the widow’s mite — and I think one of those ways has enormous relevance to where we are right now in America and in the world at large. A relevance that takes me right back to my tooth cutting protest experiences at Occupy Wall Street. Back when we first heard the term the 1% and the 99% discussed in the news.
Growing up in the deep South, whenever I heard the widow’s mite story, it was always presented as another chapter in the gospel according to “shame and blame Jesus.” You know, the gospel that tells us that Christianity is the only way. It’s an interpretation that has a healthy dose of antisemitism thrown in as subtext. According to that interpretation, the scribes — those guys — you know, (wink, wink) the ones who represent all Jewish people forever and for all time — were taking advantage of the system, cheating others, and not giving enough to God. On the other hand, the widow, the “Christian” surrogate in this interpretation, gives a much larger percentage of her wealth than they do. So the scribes were lining their own pockets — while she was honoring God.
So first of all, this interpretation fails to take into account that the overarching financial systems of the time were created and maintained by the 1% of that era in history – the Roman Imperial government, not the Judean leaders of the time. The Roman system favored the wealthy — people such as Pontius Pilate, who came to the “provinces” to gain status as he climbed the political ladder back in Rome. Most importantly, these prefects extracted as much wealth from their provinces as possible. To reduce this story to those evil Jews vs. the good Christians distorts some significant facts. And in doing so it uses the hideous stereotyping of one particular faith tradition in order to pump up different one.
Were there scribes who took advantage? Of course. But Jesus critiques those particular scribes, and it’s important to note it was only some. Many English translations, including the KJV, put a comma in the wrong place, changing the inference to “all scribes” not just some few. This further reinforces the slide into antisemitism. The original texts were clearly referencing only a certain subset of scribes, not all scribes, as the subject of Jesus’ critique.
In a second strand of interpretations, scholars notice that Jesus sits down to spend time observing the people going to the temple to make their payments. At the time, there were large horn shaped metal wells where people threw the coins — those of us who are old enough to remember paying tolls on the Jersey turnpike know how that was — toss your coins into the basket and hear that satisfying noise they make as they go in. This was similar – the trumpet shaped receptacles were meant to make a tinny noise, so everyone could hear that you had paid, especially because it was noisier if you paid more. In this interpretation, Jesus critiques them all, the widow included, because she is enabling a system that takes advantage of her. She too is putting her faith in a quid pro quo, of trying to buy her way to purity. I think we can all see how that interpretation could lead to antisemitism too.
But here’s a 3rd way to interpret this story — and it is the one that rings most true for me. Jesus sits opposite the temple to observe what’s happening — he puts his body literally in opposition to the events. And his body placement becomes a metaphor for seeing the situation from a different angle. It reminds me of the people who plunked themselves down in Zuccotti Park – right at the heart of Wall Street – to set up tents and a kitchen and a library and a medical clinic – in other words, to create a new community. They had lost their homes in the mortgage crisis (talk about a rigged system), so they decided to put their bodies where their hearts were and use their bodies to exemplify their message. “Something is not right. Something is askew. The way the banking and lending system is structured makes it impossible for us to have housing, so we are coming to make our homes right here, here where the rules are made, just to be sure you get the message that we see you – and we see what you are doing — and something has to change.”
So I think the widow agrees with Jesus — and that is why she throws in those two mites. This widow is not buying into the system, instead, she is opting out altogether. She is throwing everything she has into the pot. What was that old Janis Joplin line? Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose? That’s what we are seeing here. The widow puts it all out there — she is showing us that she sees. The system is rigged. Something has to change.
Last week, Presiding Bishop Curry was preaching down at Trinity St Paul’s that when the power of love is stronger than the love of power, then there will be peace. Well folks, we aren’t there yet. The system was rigged in Roman Palestine — rigged in a way that sent the bulk of the money to the 1% then, taking it from the 99. The system is still rigged now. This is not a new story, and this is not the last time we will ever see this phenomenon. And I know it is wearying to keep on fighting the same old fights.
But we must press on. We must find ways to preach the gospel values — the message of Love being stronger than power — and that is a message that cannot be emphasized enough on both sides of the political aisle. Back in Zuccotti Park, one of the things that struck me was that the people who came there were not all from one party — what they had in common was something different — that the system had failed all of them.
When I was in Toronto earlier this week I had the joy of hearing many good speakers, including 93 year old theologian and climate activist John Cobb. He reminded us that at this moment 5 people on the planet hold as much wealth as the entire bottom 50% of humanity. 5 people. 5 people who represent 5 transnational corporations who have NO accountability to anyone. Think about that. Think about the enormity of the imbalance that represents. Think about how that imbalance engenders the racism, demonization of others, and cruelty we are experiencing. We need, more than ever, to maintain community so that we can use that power to insist, with love, on accountability.
One question I hear so often right how is “how do we bridge the divide in our country — how do we talk to ‘the other.’” I think one way to start is to acknowledge what we share. We are all grieving. We are all distressed. At the deepest level we all know that things are askew. That given the headlong progress of environmental destruction, even our survival as a species is in question. There are some who acknowledge this, and others who don’t. But for those of us who do — if we can start from that place — start from a place of compassion because we know, deep down, that others are hurting just as much as we are — perhaps it will provide us with the bridge we need. Civil rights leader and elder Ruby Bridges often says that one of her first questions when speaking with someone with strong opposing views is some version of this: where does it hurt? She tries, throughout her encounters, to embody a stance of curiosity and compassion. We are both hurting. We are both wounded. You are also a beloved child of God. Tell me your story. Please share with me where you hurt. I want to bear witness. I want to know. I see you. Help me to understand.
We, as the church, can take an active role in building that bridge. On Friday, at Diocesan Con-vention, we were taught a process for starting these difficult conversations. Mother Liz, James Amodeo, and I will lead us in a session of this dialogue process later today in our discussion forum. When we, as the church, model love and compassion, we are modeling how God interacts with us. God sees us in all of our complexity and brokenness. God sees us in all of our joy and delight. God loves us for exactly who we are. When we do this, we are modeling that the power of love is greater than the love of power.
So I ask you:
Where does it hurt?
Because I see you.
And I want to understand.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky
The Church of the Ascension