The Underside

Below is the sermon I preached today.

24th Sunday after the Pentecost
November 11, 2012
Pittsfield, MA

Scripture: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

Two stories, both about widows. Traditionally, we would see each story in the following way. Ruth as love story. She, a Moabite, and Naomi fled the terrible famine in Moab to Bethlehem. Destitute with no means of support, Ruth gleaned the fields of a kinsman, Boaz. In this morning’s reading, Ruth went to Boaz and took advantage of him in his drunken state. Yes, they had sex. Later, Boaz took Ruth as his wife. The gospel lesson is one we know as the “Widow’s Mite.” Luke included this story in his gospel as well. As this story generally appears around this time two out every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary, preachers often use it for a stewardship sermon. The widow as generosity. Traditionally, we hear this, “Look at this widow, who put all she had into the treasury. That’s generosity. We should give to this church as generously as she.”

These perspectives make two very harsh stories very palatable. They hide from us the reality of widowhood in the contexts of each story. When we read the word “widows” (and the same applies to orphans) in scripture, we should see them as big, red flags indicating dire poverty. Widowhood was a status that was almost akin to a curse. A commandment from Yahweh, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (Exo. 22:22-24) God took special care of widows, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5) Thus, the law commanded Israel to provide for the widow from the tithe, “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.” (Deut. 26:12)

Widows (and orphans) then are a stand-in for people today whom we designate as the poor. Destitute, they had no means of support without husbands or sons. There was no such thing as social security, and inheritance laws did not pass wealth to the widow. Economic security for widows came from their sons, if they had them, or through marriage to her husband’s brother or other male family member. When we think of Ruth coming on to Boaz out of economic necessity, it changes something, doesn’t it? It sullies the belief that she was deeply in love with him. The widow should not have been putting money in the Temple treasury at all; that treasury was to support her. Celebrating the widow’s generosity to urge us to support our church makes us unseemly and not unlike the scribes and Pharisees Jesus had just confronted. Furthermore, when Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction immediately following this story, it would be hard not to think that the widow’s mite was a sign of institutional rot that put the Temple in jeopardy.

These aren’t feel good stories when we look at their undersides. Looking at the underside of life is challenging. Looking at life’s underside potentially exposes our own fears and biases. The underside can make us vulnerable.

Which I think is one of our problems with the way our political discourse in this country addresses poverty. Most people look at the poor and react. Some people see them as moochers; lazy, entitled, do-nothings who scam the system. Other people look at them with pity; we’ve got to help, let’s give them food and some money. The latter remind me of the ironic poetry from the theologians Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who wrote Salt of the Earth:

Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Lets drink to the salt of the earth

Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth

And when I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and
Black and white
They don’t look real to me
In fact, they look so strange

When we don’t see the underside, we’re apt to put a gloss on the real situation. We might demonize the poor or we might sentimentalize them, not unlike the song. When we don’t look at the underside, we don’t get close enough to see them. We don’t hear their stories. We don’t touch them.

But looking at the underside is hard. It can be ugly. It can be disturbing. It can make us angry. I remember one time some years ago a young couple with a child had been coming for food from the food pantry every several weeks. I didn’t see them for awhile and then one day they returned with their new baby. I was so angry that after they left I said to the administrative assistant, “We should stock our pantry with condoms.”

Looking at the underside, though, is not supposed to make us feel good. Sometimes we have to face challenges and suffer discomfort in order to bring about God’s peace and justice. Throughout his ministry, Jesus looked at the underside of first century Palestine. I doubt his reactions would have been any different than ours. I don’t think he did it because he enjoyed it either. He did it because that’s what he was called to do. It was his ministry. He knew that looking at the underside was the only real way he could bring true healing and provide real hope to the poor. Looking at the underside and spending time with the underside were the most effective and best ways to change aspects of a system that fostered and enabled poverty to flourish. If Jesus did not look at the underside, nothing would have changed and we wouldn’t be here. We will never achieve God’s kingdom of peace and justice if we avoid looking at the underside.

Jesus lived long enough to begin the work to challenge and change the system. It remains unfinished, and as disciples, we’re called to persevere in his name. We’re called to make a real difference in the lives the poor, and that means not withholding funds to “teach” them how to be self-sufficient or just throwing money at them to “support” them to self-sufficiency. We have to dignify those who are poor. We have to get to know them and their stories. We have to see them as more than “a faceless crowd, a swirling mass of gray and black and white.” When we can see them as individuals with stories, we will probably find that they don’t like being poor and they resent having to rely upon handouts. We will probably find out that they need the government support they receive, but they resent that the rules for that support come with regulations that stymie their own initiatives. We will probably find that they are grateful for food pantries, but resent that they have to take whatever is bagged for them.

I know that looking at the underside is hard. As I’ve talked to people in need of assistance, I’ve learned a lot. Poverty has a complex tangle of roots. As I’ve listened, I’ve become increasingly convinced that providing small loans of a few hundred dollars, known as microcredit for situations like rent deposits, auto repair, medical co-pays and utility bills in arrears, can mean the difference between keeping a home or living on the street. But microcredit is not the only way … I also think it includes better sexuality education and better access to birth control to reduce the chance that couples already struggling economically won’t have another child until they are financially stable. And yet there’s even more that needs to be done.

We don’t, however, have to look at the underside individually. We do it as the church, the body of Christ. Honestly, it’s easier to look at ugliness with others. It’s less disturbing when we don’t have to look at it alone. We’re less apt to say something in anger when we’re one of a few people looking at it together. When we look at the underside as the church we can support each other in our mutual discomfort. We can probably find better and solutions when we bring multiple perspectives to bear upon a situation.

But poverty has a different look to a church than a secular organization because we see it from the perspective of God’s grace and abundance. It means that we are better equipped to destroy the roots that perpetuate poverty. We begin with the teachings of Jesus, who showed us not just how to look at the underside but to look with compassion as well. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage and strength to undertake the task. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see and unstops our ears to hear in order that we may see poverty as it really is and to hear the stories as they are really lived. Doing that leads to real solutions for systemic change. And God gives us the voice with which we can speak prophetically. We can speak truth to power. As the church we can speak more loudly than as individuals. As the church we have more collective strength to push for real change in order to rip out each root that feeds poverty – we can uproot them one by one. When we’re looking at the underside of poverty, listening to the stories from the underside of poverty, and standing with the underside of poverty, we position ourselves to make a lasting difference in the lives of those who are poor. Working together, we can push for real and effective change in our secular institutions.

While change doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, it is more like stuttering starts and stops, it does change if we’re willing to persist. Justice cannot be stopped as we know from Amos, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24) As the church we stand on the side of justice. As the church we are the body of Christ and are called by our discipleship to carry on the ministry started by Jesus. And we’ll do that when together we minister to the underside.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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