Sunday, November 8, 2009

Scribes, widows and "Where did you go to high school?"

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009.

Of all the rules and laws we learn in our life, one of the first laws we learn is the law of the schoolyard. The Law of the Lunchroom. Think back to your school days … and maybe that means you only have to think back to Friday, but think back. Who are the cool kids? Even if it was 50 years ago, I’ll bet you don’t have to think long. It was 30 years ago for me and I can tell you … Mike Clements and Amy Breck and the people who hung out with them.

You know who the cool kids are. Everyone knows who they are – that’s part of what’s cool about them. And you also know that you didn’t hang with them or sit at their table unless you were one of them.

Now maybe you were one of the cool kids. Or maybe you just wanted to be one of them. Or maybe you were happy where you were. But wherever you were, you definitely don’t want to be at the other end of the spectrum, and you definitely don’t want to be the cool kids’ target, living at the bottom of the lunchroom food chain.

So here’s the law. In the schoolyard, in the lunchroom, in the social structure of children and teenagers you can try to climb the ladder and join the cool kids – and that’s not without risk -- but what you never want to do is slip down. You never want to lose the place you have, lest you find yourself rejected, at the bottom of the ladder.

And if you are at the bottom, you want to be as invisible as possible. Because you can learn to live at the bottom, but the last thing you want is to be the target of ridicule or worse from those who are at the top.

Now in one way or another, we all know this, and we all have our stories of how we have fit into it. And we also all know that it doesn’t end when you leave the lunchroom and the schoolyard. There’s still a cool kids table wherever we go and no matter how old we get. We call it different things now, but it’s still there … who is in the cool group and who is not. We sometimes get more sophisticated and politically correct about framing it … and sometimes we just get more brutal … but it’s all still there.

It’s like how we all laugh at that quintessential St. Louis question “Where did you go to high school?” but there’s an edge to our chuckle. Because we also know that how we answer that question is extremely important. Because based on that answer, we are slotted. We are given status and standing. And we know it.

And the rules remain the same, too. If you’re not part of the power group, there’s stuff you’re shut out of and places you can’t go. You can aspire to higher status and try to move up, but the one thing we are never supposed to do is to risk the standing we have. To embarrass ourselves. To do anything that would throw us down to the bottom of the food chain where we are rejected and laughed at and scorned.

And so we live lives bound by a subtle and unspoken fear – subtle and unspoken because almost as long as we can remember it has always been a part of our lives. Whatever power and standing you have, whatever you do don’t lose it, do what you need to do to preserve it and even gather more … but above all don’t do anything in the world to endanger it. Don’t slip down that food chain. Because you don’t want to pay that bill.

One of the most amazing people I have ever met is a priest in Nashville named Becca Stevens. Becca knows about people at the bottom of the food chain, the people who are the farthest orbit out from the cool kids table. She and her congregation founded an intentional community for women breaking the cycles of abuse that have them trapped in the world of prostitution, and those women are about as rejected by society as you can get. Becca commented to me once that we are a society that permits everything and forgives nothing. What she is talking about is a life bound by that fear. That fear of losing the power we have and even worse of having the wrath and ridicule of the more powerful focused on us. And because of that fear, we permit those of us with power and standing to get away with terrible things. I’m not just talking about Wall Street brokers gambling with people’s 401Ks or celebrities buying their way out of drug charges. I’m talking about when people like you and me are standing with a group of peers and someone makes a racist or sexist or homophobic comment or says something about someone else behind their back and we let it pass. We permit everything because we’re afraid of what might happen if we spoke up. We’re afraid of the joke being turned on us.

And on the flip side when people don’t have that power or standing, we forgive nothing. And that’s not just about the Don Imus’s and Bernie Madoff’s who have fallen from grace and have people who cozied up to them for years pretending they never knew them. That’s about anyone whose ever been pulled over for a DWB … you know what that is … driving while black. That’s about black and Hispanic people making up 24% of the U.S. population but 55% of the U.S. prison population(1). It’s about young black men with NO criminal record being less likely to be hired for entry-level jobs than the same young white men who DO report criminal backgrounds(2).

Yep, whether it’s a wedgie in the locker room, or what you say in the board room, the same rules apply. If you’re one of the cool kids, we permit everything. If you’re at the bottom of the food chain, we forgive nothing.

And so the message is clear. When you have power and standing, don’t risk it, do what you need to do to preserve it and above all don’t do anything in the world to endanger it. Because the last thing you want to do is find yourself on the outside looking in.

This is nothing new. Not only because this is how we grew up in the schoolyard and the lunchroom but this is how things have been for thousands of years. And we see it in this morning’s Gospel as Jesus contrasts two people – the scribes and a widow.

These are people on the opposite ends of the food chain. The scribes are educated and powerful. They’re the cool kids and they literally sit at the cool kids’ table. They have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. And Mark’s Gospel says they “love” these things. They love them more than anything and there is no way they are going to risk them … and in fact they are going to do everything they can to preserve them. And they know that just like today, they live in a society that permits everything and forgives nothing … so they aren’t taking any chances. They aren’t rocking any boats. They say long prayers so they’ll look really good and devour widow’s houses … and certainly don’t call each other on their terrible behavior. They are the ones with the power. And they use it all right. Use it to keep it. They’re not taking any chances.

And then there’s the widow. The widow has no power. In first-century Palestine, widows were among the most vulnerable people in society. In Hebrew law they had no right to inheritance so they were at the mercy of the heirs of their husband’s estates and whatever charity anyone else wanted to throw their way. But the widow still had something to lose. The widow had no power, but if she stayed anonymous and didn’t give anyone a reason to look at her. If she knew her place and kept to it, then even though she might not have power, at least she wouldn’t risk the wrath and ridicule of this society that permits everything and forgives nothing.

But that’s not what she did. In the midst of all these rich people coming forward and putting large sums of money in the treasury, this widow steps forward and puts in a penny. Now Jesus lauds her for giving out of her poverty, and she certainly did that … but that’s not all she did. She didn’t just give everything … she risked everything. Putting that tiny gift out there next to those huge gifts of the wealthy she risked ridicule and shame, she risked being told she didn’t know her place and being laughed out of a temple many of them thought she had no business being in to begin with.

And yet Jesus says the widow was the one who glorified God. Because the widow was the one who did what God did. God, who had all the power in the universe, didn’t hold onto that power but instead emptied the divine self into human form, even though that meant not only the pains of life but the risk of suffering and death, which of course is what ended up happening.

God didn’t live out of fear of a society that permits everything and forgives nothing. If God had, then Jesus would have been born a emperor instead of a refugee. But Jesus knew and that widow knew, too, that there is only one equation that matters and that is that love is greater than fear. So when Jesus grew in respect and people started calling him teacher. When Jesus started showing some cool kid potential, he could have taken the route of the scribes and used that power to get himself a place at that table. But instead he took the route of the widow, risking everything to offer his gifts in love. He hung out with and valued those most tossed aside by the world – tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely. And this morning, however cool or uncool we might be, he invites us to do the same.

Jesus puts these two examples in front of us – the scribe and the widow – because there really is no grey area between them. A hundred times, a thousand times a day we make choices big and small about which one we’re going to be. Will we use our power to preserve our power, to stay or become one of the cool kids? Or will we risk our power to love this world as God loves us, to love those who live furthest out from that cool kids table, to dance and sing and live out loud … and not care who is watching.

Will we support the health care plan that is best for us or the one that gives the most to those with the least?

Will we shop for the best bargain for us, or instead care more whether the people who made the products we buy were given a fair wage and work in safe conditions?

Will we go sit with the kid in the lunchroom who doesn’t fit in with the other kids, or pass the ball to the kid who is only being allowed to play because the teacher is watching, or talk to the person at coffee hour who is sitting off by themselves.

Will we get over our fear of ridicule to offer our own gifts in love? Will we sing and dance because it’s in our hearts even though we really are terrified what others’ might think? Will we float a new idea even though someone might call it stupid. Will we have the courage to speak truth to power instead of mumbling it to those who agree with us when power has left the room?

And most of all when we see other people having the courage and faith to do these things will we not only not throw rocks at them but actively stand with them and sing with them and dance with them and get each other’s backs.

Jesus’ holds up the scribes and the widow for us this morning and asks us if we as a Cathedral are going to care more about being respectable or being boldly loving, realizing that those two things don’t always come in conflict, but that when they do there’s a Gospel gut-check to be made.

Jesus holds up the scribes and the widow for us this morning and invites us to stop asking one another “where’d you go to high school?” and instead start asking ourselves “are we scribes or are we widows?” And together pray to God to help us choose wisely, boldly and together. AMEN.
1. Sabol, William J., PhD, and Couture, Heather, Prisoners at Midyear 2007 Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2008, NCJ221944, p. 7.
2. Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse, p. 63.

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