The Blessings and the Woes
Episode 24 – February 17, 2019
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Sigrid Aase – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”
Louis Puggaard-Müller – “The Times they are A Changing”
Reading No. 1
Read by John Helps, of Camrose United Church at the Scotia Centre, prior to a UFC fight, in Toronto, Ontario.
Reading No. 2
The Christmas just before I turned 11 years old, I was at a party, in the parking lot of the Miracle Food Mart in Orillia. If you don’t live in Ontario or are too young to remember, Miracle Food Mart was a pretty popular grocery chain up until the mid-1990s when it was taken over by A&P, which has since been rebranded as Metro. Actually…what I had been told was a Christmas party was really a rally…a festive rally, mind you, but a rally, nonetheless. A rally of striking food retail workers. Beginning in November 1993 and ending February 1994, the 14-week job action was the longest retail strike in Ontario history and one of the longest in Canada. It was angry. It was bitter. Blue collar strikes are often different than those of unionized professionals. I remember stories of fist fights on the picket lines. Black eyes. Bloody noses. Broken bones. The end result, and in my opinion, the direct result of grossly inadequate union leadership, was an across the board $1.75 wage decrease for full-time workers, full-time job hours moving from 37 hours a week to 24 hours, and 700 jobs being eliminated from a 6500 person workforce. Women overwhelming bore the brunt of wage losses. The hardest hit department across all 63 stores in Ontario was the meat department. My father is a meat cutter – a trade that required a three-year apprenticeship. With most butchering and meat cutting moving to large factory operations in the GTA, my father was one of those 700 workers all but forced into taking a buyout.
But let’s go back to Christmas. By the time Christmas came around, the Miracle Food Mart employees had been on strike for over six weeks. Christmas is a hard time to not have an income. So, all of the employees who had kids submitted the gender and ages to their union rep, and the union provided donated toys to the families so that all the kids would have something to open on Christmas morning.
My father was given toys to put under the tree for us. I have three younger brothers, and each of them received reasonably acceptable gifts. My present was a fake, plastic makeup kit…the kind you give to a toddler. Toy lipstick. Toy blush. I was going to be 11 in five days and I was not a very girly girl. I had approximately zero percent interest in makeup or the colour pink. It was probably the worst Christmas gift I’ve ever received in my life. And my father…he was absolutely mortified. He had to leave the room. It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to put my finger on what it was my father was probably feeling at that moment. Shame. It was shame.
Our text from Luke this week – it feels familiar, but maybe a bit more familiar than it actually is. When we think of the beatitudes, we are mostly thinking of Matthew’s version. Blessed are the poor! Blessed are the meek! Blessed are the peacemakers! It’s Matthew’s version that gets embroidered onto muslin by those crafty church ladies. It’s Matthew’s version that gets parodied by Monty Python. Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed.
This week marks 25 years passing since the end of the Miracle Food Workers Strike. Twenty Five years this coming Thursday. The end of that strike marked the end of my family’s financial stability. From that moment on, everything was precarious. How and what we ate changed. What extracurricular activities we could participate in changed. Our house went on the market…so many times. I remember the constant anxiety about our home…an old, Edwardian farmhouse on 50 acres of land. Would we be forced to move? Would the bank foreclose on the mortgage? If we had to leave, where would we go? These were thoughts that would run through my head as I overheard my parents stressing, and sometimes arguing, about what to do. Were we ever in danger of ending up on the street? No. But one of the hidden casualties of precarious work, of unstable finances, is one’s sense of safety and security…that things are going to be okay.
And so, I also remember sitting in the pews of my tiny country church and hearing “Happy and Blessed are you poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours!” Me, at this point a teenager, and deep in my sarcastic, snarky phase…I remember thinking…yeah, right. Screw you, Jesus. Screw you. There was definitely some swearing going on under my breath in the back on the sanctuary because, to my thinking, Jesus obviously didn’t know much about poverty if he could, in any amount of seriousness, talk about it being a blessing. Quite frankly, it read like a capitalist manifesto, meant to keep the plebeians docile so the wealthy elite could continue their reign of economic exploitation. All those poor folks are way less likely to call you to task for ongoing oppression if they believe there is actually some benefit to being poor.
And so, I hated the kitchy cross stitched hangings. This was not a Christ who got me.
But this is Luke. You’re not going to find Luke’s version of the beatitudes hanging on the walls of the church hall. Probably because Luke adds something that Matthew doesn’t.
Oh, the Woes…
Woe to those who are rich! Woe to you who are fed! Woe to those who laugh, for you have already had your easy life!
Let’s be clear here: for those listening to these words, they would have seemed completely absurd! In fact, if you think about it, so much of the Gospel is completely and utterly absurd! Last week we heard about Jesus calling his first disciples. We heard about experienced fishermen, on their own boat, differing to…a carpenter. And that massive catch of fish–an economic windfall–they just left it.
On the beach.
For anybody to take.
In order to follow a fellow Galilean, with no particular prestige or social clout, who had…a vision of what was possible for God’s people.
But, we’ve skipped forward in Luke’s story quite a bit from last week to this week. Jesus has been busy. Very busy. There have been healings. So. Many. Healings. A bunch of dudes even cut a hole in the roof of a house Jesus was visiting so their buddy could be healed. It was a desperate situation and Jesus was their last hope. The word has been spreading far and wide about this miraculous and prophetic man and by now…Jesus is a rock star. We’re talking cover of TIME Magazine, “Galilee’s most influential Jews Under 35”.
Last Wednesday, representatives, both clergy and lay, from approximately eight local United Churches, met in the parlour of Knox United Church in Sutton. With the restructuring of the denomination, pastoral charges are being encouraged to form clusters – groupings of congregations, loosely based on geography, seeking to find what they can do together more effectively than they can do alone. For the past two meetings, we’ve been looking at how we might respond to the near crisis of poverty and precarious housing in northern York Region.
In some translations of Luke, “blessed” and “woe” are translated as “happy” and “terrible”. None of these seems very accurate. I mean, I’m happy when my husband remembers how I take my tea. None of these words seems powerful enough to reflect what Jesus is talking about here.
So it might be more helpful to think of this passage in terms of the honour and shame system so prevalent in Jesus’ time. It is this same system that makes an unwed mother giving birth to the son of God so…scandalous. And really, every story we read and hear in Luke…it all circles back to that song…the song that Mary sings when she is visited by an angel. A song about the beautiful absurdity of the tables turning, finally turning, for the benefit of her community.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Shame. Honour. Is it really so different now? Is it really such a different system? We have an unfortunate tendency in United Church circles to think of those experiencing poverty as those outside our congregations. We talk of the poor as if they are an Other. An Other deserving of our charity (however misguided our charity models are) and perhaps even our advocacy. But we are still advocating for people we are imagining exist outside our buildings – not sitting among us. This is not true. And because of that language…because of that mostly unconscious thinking…those among us can feel an incredible amount of shame when they need help and support.
I once ran an Out of the Cold lunch programme in downtown Toronto. We’d serve 300 meals every Tuesday. But there was one man I remember very clearly. He had recently lost his job in the financial services industry. He would show up for lunch in a suit, and sit by himself…as far as he could from the other guests. I remember sitting down to talk to him. The first words out of his mouth were “I’m not poor or anything…I’m just in a bit of tight spot right now.” Because to be poor, that would be shameful.
The shame. It was heartbreaking. The shame of feeling like poverty was a personal failure, and not the result of overwhelmingly unjust systems which always, always, favour the powerful. Because poverty is never the fault of the poor. I am certain the CEO of this man’s company was not experiencing the consequences of his company’s failings. Shame and honour. Who decides? Who bears the consequences?
So what does that mean…for us? Well, as the months go on, you are likely to hear more and more about the work of the South Simcoe Waters Cluster, inviting you to follow us as we explore how, as Christian, and specifically United Church, communities, we might respond…actively respond…to environmental and economic injustices occurring within our communities. We will be called to speak openly, from an informed and educated place, to the public and to politicians about what it means to take care of the vulnerable among us. What it takes for everybody to have the opportunity to live healthy, sustainable, spirit-filled lives.
And there may be a cost to this.
Members of the greater community may not like what we have to say. There may be pushback. This kind of work…it is not easy.
And Luke knows this. While Luke’s primary audience are poor, it was not his only audience. Luke had a patron, and this parton’s name was Theophilus. Theophilus would not have been poor. He would have been a man with social clout. A man of means. Luke knew that for the powerful to join the Jesus community, they would become outcasts in a way they had never experienced before. Quoting from the work of Bruce Malina , Richard L. Rohrbaugh: Social ostracism is always the fate of the poor in society, but social ostracism may become the fate of the rich who join Jesus groups that include the poor. Luke knows the terrible costs involved for rich Jesus group members but is uncompromising in his demand that these costs be paid.
And so too are we called to stand alongside our neighbours. It is not so much “Woe to you who are rich”, but rather “Woe to you who are rich at the expense of others. Woe…woe to you who can see nothing beyond your own riches.”
We called to come down from the mountain, onto level ground, and truly risk. Church is not easy. I can’t for the life of me remember the source for this quote, but I once heard that rather than create an expectation of safety in churches, we should be handing out chisels and hard hats when people walk through the doors. At its deepest and most authentic, Church is not easy.
It would have meant something, 25 years ago, if churches in Ontario collectively took a stand against the corporation and the union that sold out people like my father, and my family. Could it have changed the system? Meh. Maybe. Mostly, it would have done something to spread balm over the shame of the workers who lost their livelihoods. Because…the shame was not theirs to bear.
Poverty is never the fault of the poor.
Jesus knew this. And I pray that we do too.