Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon for November 18, 2012

Jesus and the New Classism
Thanksgiving Sunday

How many of us can remember a Thanksgiving when we haven’t participated in a food drive, or helped out at Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless, or invited a lonely neighbor over for dinner? How many of us can remember a Thanksgiving when provided money for food or assembled or distributed Thanksgiving baskets for those in need of attention and care? For most of us, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving unless we remember our responsibility to those who exist at the edges of society. It says a lot about our character as Americans that during our holiday of giving thanks, we have an impulse to share with those whose needs are greater than our own; that we share with those who so often feel forgotten.

Thanksgiving is a time of great generosity. But is it also a time of justice? Let’s turn to the example of Jesus to look for some answers. This is from Mark 12:38ff.
Jesus taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces.  And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. Notice how Jesus is setting up the Scribes. A Scribe’s primary occupation was writing out copies of the Jewish Scriptures and teaching the people what the law said. Scribes studied the fine details of following Jewish law. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes the point repeatedly that the Scribes, these leaders and law experts, expect privilege and status. Jesus consistently calls religious people to be last and “servants of all.” But the Scribes use religion as a veil for economic opportunism. Let’s see how this scene plays out.
Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.”
What is the moral of this story? I was always taught that Jesus wants his followers to see the contrast between religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman. The interpretation comes straight from John Calvin, granddaddy of the Reformed tradition. In his Harmony of the Gospels, Calvin says the poor should not hesitate to express their devotion to God cheerfully out of their slender means, “for if they consecrate themselves, their offering, which appears to be mean and worthless” will not be seen as insignificant. According to Calvin, the chief sacrifice God wants from us is self denial.

Oh Calvin?! You know I love you, but sometimes you make me uncomfortable. Using the poor as an object lesson about self-denial sounds like an implication of the so-called 47% “moocher class” we’ve been hearing about.  We have lots of cultural stereotypes that go with the word “poor.” We are taught poor people are unintelligent, inarticulate, and overly emotional. Another stereotype is poor people spend money on frivolous things. If poor people just gave up on satellite television and IPhones, they would pop up into the middle class. Poverty has a different face. To be sure, those in poverty are forced to deny themselves constantly, but it is not the kind of self-denial that makes God smile. The poor must deny the things that all of us want: a comfortable life, a convenient life, a healthy life, a life full of small pleasures. Poor people end up denying themselves lattes, fresh cut flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables, health care and time for exercise, mp3 players, travel, expensive clothes and accessories, not to mention all of the “must-have” consumer goods that are constantly marketed to us. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves, and members of their families for a long time. It’s true today. It was true in Jesus’ day. I do not think Jesus is holding the poor widow’s ultimate financial sacrifice up as a model for us. Let’s rethink this.

Jesus and his disciples are hanging out at the Temple. Jesus must feel a little out of step with the hustle and bustle of urban life. The city is disconcertingly big and busy. Think of how it feels to visit New York City on a crowded day. For me it’s amazing and scary all at the same time. The full array of humanity is there to see: rich and poor, greed and generosity, religion and commercialism. Imagine it’s the same in Jerusalem. Swarms of people are there, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Jesus makes his way to the Temple treasury. The Temple has 13 trumpet-shaped chests along the walls of a space called The Court of Women. Temple worshippers toss their financial offerings into these chests. Some of the donors are rich people who give from their abundance. But Jesus singles out one woman. We know two things about her. She is poor and she is a widow. In Jewish law, she is a member of a protected class. Hebrew Scripture clearly calls people to care for widows because they have no support net (Deut. 14.29). Jewish faith understands that God’s creation has enough for everyone to flourish. If there is poverty, it’s because some in creation have filled their pockets first. So, instead of being a recipient of Temple funds, the poor widow donates two little coins. She gives all that is left of her whole life.

Jesus says, “She just gave everything she had to live on! She gives from her destitution!” His words are not praise, but a lament. He is not admiring the poor widow’s generous spirit of self-denial. No, Jesus is condemning a religion-supported economic system that creates classes of haves and have-nots. The poor widow is not empowered. Instead of protecting widows, the Scribes exploit them in order to feed their self-important status. For Jesus, the Temple becomes a symbol of that which devours the resources of the poor. And Jesus objects.

We see the equivalent of the poor widow in our communities. The poor are not some lump of people at the bottom of society who are just there as the underclass, permanently outside the mainstream of American life. The poor are working people. If we understand that poverty is something that is happening to working class Americans, then we begin to understand America’s new classism.

To think about class in America, is to think about how we are divided by economic and social status. To think about class in America, is to think about how we are separated from one another -- on the other side of the fence, on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of town. The "haves", the "have-nots", the almost haves…the haves, for now. "Class" is the elephant in the room of our schools, our justice system, our county council meetings, our extended families at the Thanksgiving Table, and yes, "class" is the elephant in the room of our churches. So let’s talk about it.

Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his later writings, identified three elements working together to cause oppression in America. Each element works separately but in tandem with the other two to create a perfect storm of lost opportunity for millions of Americans. The first element is racism. Racism tries to put white American men in control of a system that has keeps people of color and women out of positions of power and opportunities for advancement. The Conference Ministers of the UCC just sent out a pastoral letter to our churches. The ministers, “call on all settings of the church to maintain a vigilant voice in this struggle for racial justice and equality.” The ministers write, “We urge you to speak out when voices emerge on the landscape that threatens to turn back the clock and undo the work of those who came before us. We invite our white members, families, and churches to develop new skills as allies in dismantling white privilege and fostering new dimensions of racial justice and equality.”

The second part of the triangle of oppression is classism. King realized, as he peeled back the layers of American oppression, that racism was not operating alone. How could it be that people of the racially dominant group could be oppressed with a power equal to that of racism? And how could it be that people of color could achieve at the highest levels in some parts of the American society, in business, academia, and government, in spite of their color and cultural background? King linked it to classism.

The third part of the triangle is poverty. If poverty alone were alleviated, if each person truly had enough food, wealth, healthcare, and good jobs, it would alleviate the oppression caused by racism and classism. But it would not end that oppression. Dr. King said, “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all [people] are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers'[and sister’s] keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

As I said earlier, I think most Americans are generous people. We want to help. We want to heal. But how do we achieve and maintain equality and also embrace diversity? If the poor are in reality part of the working class, cycling in and out of poverty and near-poverty, what does that imply for the traditional Christian concern for the poor?

The idea offering charity for the poor is part of who we are. Charity is a beautiful thing. But charity is not a practical program, because the way for the poor to have a better life is for them to have more power.  Generosity is not enough. We stand for generosity with Justice. Generosity with justice means we aren’t just charitable toward the poor. If we approach working people who are poor with a sense of charity, it’s humiliating to many people. People will take charity because they’re hungry, and they’ll even appreciate it in a certain way. However, charity can be given in a way that’s deeply hurtful and in the long run counterproductive. There’s another way. Generosity with justice. We offer help in a way that says, "Let’s work together, let’s stand together, in ways that make us fully and equally powerful as we seek to fulfill our common interests and individual needs.”

Generosity with justice questions hierarchies of dominator and dominated. Where inequity exists, we will not accept the widely-held perspective that blames the victims. Generosity with justice allows us to feel the pain of these oppressive and unbalanced social, religious, and economic systems, regardless of our privileged or unprivileged position. We listen with compassion. We learn the history and experiences of others. We become conscious of the immediate and long-term impact of each move we make.

Generosity with justice let’s go of oppressive dynamics and helps us commit to living life for its highest purpose.

Generosity with justice helps our individual needs and desires become secondary to those of the community, local and global.

Generosity with justice fosters awareness of how our actions affect others. It nourishes relationships that are guided by deep intuition, openness and creativity. With gratitude and justice, we feel and experience a profound sense of interrelatedness with everything.

Generosity with justice limits destructive behaviors such as arrogance, self-centeredness, superiority, inferiority, doubt, worry, fear, anxiety.

Generosity with justice helps us not just count our blessings, but count our privileges.

If we keep reading in Mark’s gospel, we will hear Jesus predict the collapse of the Temple, and with it, the dawning of a new world in which the powers of domination and inequity will be toppled, a world in which justice is restored to the most compromised among us, a world in which the ethics of the law are restored. This new beginning dawns when we claim our identity.

Our generous Thanksgiving outreach with food is awesome. But with justice, our generosity extends into actions designed to end violence in our cities families, schools and neighborhoods as well as in other countries.  In other words, we can use this observance of the Thanksgiving holiday to remind ourselves that generosity with justice connects us to the heart of God. And that’s something to be thankful for. We live more fully into God’s new reality. We breathe it. We live it. We dream it. We pray for it. We work for it. 

“Classism and Economic Injustice,”
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman, pp.318-323.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize Speech,
“Don’t be charitable to the poor...”
“Deep Interrelatedness and Transformation,”
"Thanksgiving 2011”
Pastoral Letter on Racism, November 2012
Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark.

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