SERMON NOTES — November 11, 2018
Consider the story of Oseola McCarty. She died at the age of 91 in 1999. She was an African-American woman from Mississippi, who earned a living by washing and ironing other people’s clothes. McCarty, who never married, was in the 6th grade when she had to leave school and take over her mother’s laundry business while she cared for a sick aunt. “All my classmates had gone off and left me so I didn’t go back,” she said. “I just washed and ironed.” She never had a car. At the urging of bank personnel, did she finally buy a window air conditioner for her home. McCarty’s arthritis forced her to retire in December of ’94 at the age of 86.
McCarty scrimped and saved, however, until she was able to leave $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to set up scholarships for other needy African Americans. Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, Ted Turner, a multi-billionaire, gave away a billion dollars. He said, ‘If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.’
“I want to help somebody’s child go to college,” Oseola said. “I just want it to go to someone who will appreciate it and learn. I can’t do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. I wish I could do more. But what I can do I will do.” Amen, Oseola, Amen!
A poor laundry woman inspires a billionaire to give generously. Not bad. But, as Jesus implies, there is still something wrong with this picture. Oseola McCarty gave $150,000; Ted Turner gave a $1 billion. Yet she has given much more by comparison. Ted Turner could afford much more than a billion; he continues to live in great luxury. Oseola McCarty gave a lifetime of savings; she continues to live in relative poverty.
The context of this story of the widow who gave everything to the Temple treasury clues us into more that’s going on. It’s not only a story of the widow’s generosity. It is also a story of truth-telling, a story of making obvious for all to see the inequity built into the system. Her generosity shines a light, but in doing so it also reveals a darkness.
Just prior to the widow’s appearance Jesus has said of the wealthy scribes and Pharisees, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Then, as if on cue, in walks a widow to live that terrible truth. This widow is not just an inspirational model of generosity; she is a prophet of the systemic inequality between rich and poor. Her life, especially in such an act of generosity, gives witness to the broken economic system which continues to sacrifice the poor.
The context of this story also includes what comes immediately after it. Jesus and the disciples walk out of the Temple, with the disciples admiring its imposing structure. Jesus’s response? “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). The Temple represented a sacrificial system of economic inequality, and all such systems eventually become victim to their own violence. As Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” And so the lives of the poor, in light of Jesus’s teachings and his living them out on the cross, become prophetic of the truth. Our economic systems continue to be built on great inequity, which is why they also eventually fail.
Oceola McCarty inspired a generous act from Ted Turner. But you can bet that the truth of her situation also shamed him into seeing the inequality of our economics. As such, her act of generosity also was a public act of nonviolent resistance to the violence of inequality. It bears some resemblance to the models of nonviolent resistance that Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:38-42). Instead of an eye for an eye, which makes the whole world go blind, Jesus gives examples of actions where relatively powerless people shame people in power with the truth of the systemic inequality:
- if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also
- if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well
- if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
New Testament scholar Walter Wink explains how these are acts of nonviolent resistance in which the powerless shame the powerful into seeing the truth of their inequity (beginning in his book Engaging the Powers). [Tell story of how he would act them out in seminars.]
Last Sunday, we lifted up the significance of how the saints who have gone before us can be present with us to give us courage. Coupled with the Pentecost promise of God pouring out the Spirit of prophecy on all people, we can see how this plays out in history with many people whose lives of relative powerlessness can become powerful prophets to the systemic inequality of our unjust economics. Their very lives can speak the truth. Oseola McCarty and Ted Turner both worked very hard in their lives, but consider the inequity of where they began. Oseola grew up in a poor family where she had to drop out of school in the 6th grade to help her family survive economically. Ted Turner’s life began with privileges and wealth that Oseola never had the chance to experience.
Or consider Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution against the injustice of the British oppression of India. Gandhi was a great leader, but their movement required millions of Indian ‘prophets’ to live the nonviolent resistance, if only for a few years. The same is true of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King rightly has a national holiday in his honor, but he would be the first to mention the tens of thousands who put their lives on the line to witness to the truth of Racism and economic inequality. The Spirit of prophesying the truth is poured out on all people because the cross of Jesus makes their self-sacrificial lives shine a light on the darkness.
Or consider this past year with the Affordable Care Act. I’ll never forget Ady Barkan, the 35-year-old activist with ALS who can no longer walk and is losing his ability to speak due to this neuro-degenerative disease and has a dying wish — to lobby for health care. Or the long-time activist group ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today). And what became the number one issue in last week’s elections? Pre-existing conditions and healthcare. The light of truth of thousands of ordinary people made a difference!
We are called to be prophets in a long history of relatively powerless people whose lives are offered to bear witness to the truth — the Good News of God’s coming kingdom!
Lutheran Church of the Savior