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Power in Powerlessness
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, MN
November 11, 2018
25th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27
If you have ever had the misfortune to drive on or be in an automobile of any shape on one of India’s many crowded roads and highways, you will know the true meaning of terror. It took me a full day of sitting near the front of our van in India, watching as our driver careened and swerved into oncoming traffic, to finally loosen my grip on the armrests of my seat, and allow my brain to adapt to the insanity that unfolded second after second and minute after minute in terrifying proximity to us just beyond our windshield. After nearly a month in the country, I am not sure I could tell you what written laws govern the road in India. Signs and traffic lights were minimal and minimally obeyed. Police were scarce to be seen writing tickets for infractions. And, to my untrained eye, it appeared that anarchy was the rule. Then, one afternoon, as we zigged and zagged in and out of our lane, weaving around slower moving vehicles, playing chicken with oncoming semis, our van clipped a motorcycle just as we were turning in to the parking lot of a restaurant for lunch. Imagine my surprise when our driver leapt from the van, imposing in his crisp linen drivers uniform and aviator sunglasses, and began to administer a stern tongue-lashing to the young man, no more than 20 years old, on his motorcycle at the side of the road. I was baffled. Hadn’t we clipped him? Shouldn’t we be concerned about liability? Was the young man ok? My questions were just as baffling to our guide. The young man should have been more careful, I was told. Bigger vehicles are dangerous to motorcycles. He should not have tried to follow us so closely or go around us. He should have yielded the right of way. I’ve not figured out if this is written law, or just a tacit agreement of the road, but I learned that day that in India the smaller vehicles submit to and yield right of way to bigger vehicles. There is a hierarchy of power on the road there, and it ends with the biggest at and strongest at the top. My American mind, weaned on beliefs about fairness and rules and equality, had a difficult time stomaching this truth.
Yet, despite all my beliefs about fairness, and how the world ought to operate, the experience of the hierarchy of power on the roads of India was a stark reminder of how the world actually operates in so many ways in so many places, not just “over there”, but here too. Power has always held sway in the world. So it is with the story this morning in Mark. Jesus has positioned himself opposite the treasury, a vantage that allows him to comment on the proceedings of Temple life, and also a posture that allows Mark the gospel writer to tell us, Jesus is opposed to and apart from what he is observing. Jesus is teaching, and offers this stern rebuke of the rich and the powerful.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and 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 appearance say long prayers.”
“They will receive the greater condemnation!”
Then he watches as the wealthy parade their gift to the treasury to be deposited. Remember that, at least in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has little grace for those with wealth and power. Only a few weeks ago Jesus rebuked the wealthy, saying “it will be easier for a camel to thread the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom…!” Here, in this scene, Mark tells us that a poor widow follows the rich, and puts in two copper coins worth about a penny. And, Jesus, watching pulls the disciples to him to explain what they’ve just seen. “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
In the past I have preached this passage as emblematic of the difference between abundance and scarcity. Like many preachers, I have made of the widow and even of the poor, heroes whose example we should follow. I’ve turned this into a convenient morality tale about generosity and giving, that we could each take into our personal lives. But, as I reread commentaries and theologians in preparation for this sermon, I came to realize that to read it and preach it thus would be unfaithful to the text. I needed to hear again what Jesus was saying.
Here he has been hammering home the dangers of wealth, the corrupting influence of power, he has placed himself in direct opposition to the most powerful institution in his immediate world, the Temple and its treasury, and he has just now admonished that it is those who occupy the positions of influence in these institutions who are most likely to devour widows houses, and then, as if to illustrate his point, the widow arrives in the scene with her last two coins, and in an act of obedience to the very corrupt system that Jesus is confronting, she allows herself to be devoured and bankrupted by it. Jesus’ observation then that she has given everything, is a cry of lament, a moment of exasperation and anger. Here again the rich and the powerful have swallowed up another life.
Theologian Karoline Lewis nailed it this week in her blog when she wrote about the powerlessness of the widow:
“I think this story tells a truth about God. God sees right through our self-attentive ways, our tendency for self-preservation, our constant leaning toward the lure of all that might build up the self, especially at the expense of those who need our help the most. …in the end, that’s why we don’t want to be her — because she has no power. Because if you don’t have power, it means others have more. If you do have power, it means others have less. And when you have been shaped by powerlessness, you often have little choice but to place your trust, your hope, your livelihood in extant authorities who claim they have your best interests at heart.”
We have heard time and again in recent days and weeks what happens when that trust is misplaced. Over and over our nation is rocked by violence perpetrated by those who have been led to believe that their power is being taken away, by women, by jews, by immigrants, by racial minorities, by the LGBTQ community. Our leaders stoke fears about these groups and then feign surprise and dismay when those groups are subject to violent attack. And so not a week goes by when we don’t hear about a shooting in a synagogue, a shooting in a yoga studio, a grocery store a school a club, a church, all because we who have privilege based on the color of our skin, are being fed a pack of lies that our rights and our livelihoods and our power is in danger of being taken from us! All the while the truly powerless bear the brunt of our fear and our anxiety. We go on devouring widows houses.
This is a hard passage for me, a straight, white, young man to preach. I am the one who occupies a place of great power and privilege in my community. And, in order to truly preach this story with any integrity, I need to name that I am a part of the treasury and all it represents. I am a part of the system that needs dismantling. And today, Jesus sits across from me, and all of us who have privilege, and invites us to a different way of being in the world. You see, the poor widow is not truly powerless. Hers is a story that prefigures the story of Jesus. She is devoured by the world and its corrupt systems, just as he will be murdered by a colonial power he could never defeat. But, as Karoline Lewis writes,
“The widow’s might is great indeed. A might greater than power. A might greater than the grandest buildings. A might greater than the most splendid displays that are mostly privilege and entitlement in disguise.
Because the widow’s might is God’s might — a might known in love and loyalty. In giving and grace. And in dependence and dedication.”
The widow’s might is God’s might, the power to raise the dead and indeed defeat death and all its systems of oppression and exploitation, it is the power to, as our Collect this morning says, “destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life”. It is the power to dismantle “the the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”.