Text: Acts 9:36-43
“How did you do it? Week after week, how did you do it?” That was the question I asked Mahan Siler as he was preparing to write his last sermon as pastor of Pullen. I wanted to know how week after week he came up with something new and different to say on Sunday morning. At that time in my ministry I had preached maybe 40 sermons and had already said everything I knew to say about the texts that came up every three years in the lectionary cycle. Think about it. Fifty-two Sundays multiplied by 18 years. That’s nine hundred and thirty-six sermons. Even if you subtract the four Sundays in July that he typically took off as sabbatical time, that still leaves eight hundred and sixty-four sermons that Mahan preached from this pulpit.
To my question Mahan smiled, gave a little chuckle and said, “Well Nancy, every Sunday I preached the same sermon. Week after week I simply used different words and different stories to preach the same message.” For eight years I had listened to those sermons so I really didn’t need to ask my next question, but I did anyway. “And what was that message?” And in true Mahan fashion he responded, “You decide that.” It really didn’t matter if we agreed on what the message was. I knew that for those eight years I had heard a message that put flesh on the bones of an old hymn I had sung my whole life:
Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.
No matter what else Mahan said, week after week, it was this message of grace that I heard. And maybe, I learned just how truly amazing God’s grace is because Mahan didn’t only preach about it—he embodied it.
This past week as I revisited this memory, this exchange with Mahan, the question came to me: “What message underlies most of the sayings and teachings of Jesus?” What one sermon was he constantly and consistently preaching and simply using different stories and words and images each time he preached it? Well, I submit to you this morning that the one message that permeates all that Jesus taught and preached was, in some fashion or version, the question of privilege: “What are you doing with your privilege?” Now let me put some flesh on that statement.
Take for instance the story of the Good Samaritan. The characters in the story are chosen because of their privilege (the Pharisees who walk past the injured man) or because of their lack of it (the Samaritan, who is cast specifically because the hearers of the story would have assumed him “lesser.”) If that story doesn’t convince you then think about the story of the woman at the well. Jesus again engages with a Samaritan, crossing a cultural barrier and expectation of differential privilege. Let’s keep going. How about the prodigal son? Everything in that story is about privilege – the wealthy father, the choice of a fortune to spend or save, the expectations of the eldest and “privileged” son. Then there is the actual one sermon that the gospels record that Jesus preached, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus blesses the misfortunate, the forgotten, the aggrieved, and the sorrowful, and in so doing he contrasts and rejects everyday privileges that we so often overlook. And what of these teaching of Jesus? If you have two coats, give one to the poor. (Luke 3:11) What are you doing with your privilege? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. (Matthew 19) What are you doing with your privilege? You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5) What are you doing with your privilege?
Now let’s go to our text in Acts 9. We have two main characters: Tabitha/Dorcus and Peter—both, it appears, are privileged people. As best we can discern from the story, Tabitha/Dorcus seems to have been a well-off widow living in the coastal city of Joppa. The original Greek text describes this widow-woman as “mathetria,” a female disciple—the only time the New Testament uses this word. So immediately we know she is a woman of good standing within her faith community—a woman who, even in her historical context, it seems holds a place of privilege. This thinking is reinforced by the next thing we learn about her: that she spends her time doing good works and acts of charity. Tabitha/Dorcus, we are told, makes beautiful garments out of expensive fabrics and sells them and gives the money to the poor. Only a person with some wealth could have afforded the kind of fabric that it seems Dorcus used to make these garments. And only a very comfortable person could then give away all the money she made from selling these garments. In other words, she didn’t need the money. But her privilege doesn’t stop there. The fact that her community sought out Peter, who was visiting in the next town over, to come visit her on her death bed—her literal death bed—also speaks to her privileged status.
And then there is Peter and his privilege. Yes, Peter began life as a fisherman. But by the time he encounters Tabitha, he has become one of the leaders of the emerging Christian faith. How do we know he holds privilege from this story? For one thing, it is “known” that he is nearby – his presence is the kind that inspires retelling and notice. Second, he is sought out in a crisis, he is recognized as one with power, who is most likely to be able to bring healing or help. Peter, a most privileged man.
“The idea of ‘privilege’—that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory—has a long history. In the nineteen-thirties, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the ‘psychological wage’ that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about ‘white-skin privilege.’ But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,’ which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. Those examples have since been read by countless schoolkids and college students—including, perhaps, Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman whose article, ‘Checking My Privilege’ [was widely debated in 2014].” (The Origins of “Privilege” by Joshua Rothman)
Currently with this idea of privilege so often being the topic in faith and politics and in the public moral discourse of our country, the time is quite ripe for us to ask the questions: What is our privilege? And more importantly, What are we doing with our privilege?
Some years before I become your pastor, while I was still serving as your associate pastor, a man, who I deeply respect, came to me and said, “Nancy, I don’t think I can keep coming to worship.” “Why?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “as a white, heterosexual man listening to many of the sermons preached here I feel like everything that is wrong in the world is my fault.” He went on to lament that he didn’t choose his privilege as a white, heterosexual man. In fact, he shared with me the story of how he grew up white of the non-white side of the tracks that divided the small Southern town where he was born. I can remember listening and thinking how complex and complicated privilege is and our understanding of our privilege. And lest you hear me wrong, I am not just talking about the privilege of white, heterosexual men. Every one of us sitting in this sanctuary lives with privilege. And maybe we haven’t said that enough here. We are all privileged—not just the white, heterosexual man. In listening to this individual, I realized that our first work, as people of faith, is to acknowledge our privilege, to name it, to own it, to face it, to be honest about it. And then the second thing we need to do is ask the question: What am I doing with my privilege? What are we doing with our privilege?
So what are our privileges? Let us consider first the country we live in. The United States is considered one of – if not the – richest, safest countries in the world. This country is rightly focused on an unrighteous division of wealth that we shorthand as the 99%, where 1% of the population has more wealth than the other 99%. That disparity leads us to feel unequal and disadvantaged. But on a global scale, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis, the vast majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income.
In that analysis, more than half (56%) of Americans were high income by the global standard, living on more than $50 per day in 2011. Another 32% were upper-middle income. In other words, almost nine-in-ten Americans had a standard of living that was above the global middle-income standard. 7% of people in the U.S. were middle income, 3% were low income and 2% were poor.
Compare that with the rest of the world, where 56% of people were either low income (56%) or poor (15%), and relatively few were upper-middle income (9%) or high income (7%). This is not to say that the U.S., along with other advanced economies, does not struggle with issues of income inequality and poverty. But given the much higher standard of living in the U.S., what is considered poor here is a level of income still not available to most people globally. What are we doing with our privilege?
But let’s bring it closer to home. What about our privilege as a church community? While we never feel it come budget and pledge time, we are a relatively affluent church. We enjoy a beautiful building where we have the luxuries of stained glass, congregational art projects, and home cooked meals in our own kitchen. But beyond that, we have the privilege of our reputation. We have been given, by our history, a platform on which to make a witness and a statement that few churches in our area have. What are we doing with our privilege?
Finally, let’s think of our individual privilege. The Sermon on the Mount is helpful as a guide here. We hold privilege on this planet if we have had something to eat today. If we have filled our lungs with clean air. If we have turned on our faucet (or gone to our Brita filter) and had access to clean water. If we flipped a switch and had light in the night on our way to the kitchen or the bathroom. If we have the comfort of a loved one, near or far. If we have the confidence of remembering tomorrow what we have done today. If we have mobility, agility, the freedom of our bodies. If we have hope. If we have love. If we have life. What are we doing with our privilege?
More than anything, I want you to hear this morning that this question of privilege is not a judgment question, it is not a guilt question or a shame question. As often as we hear it in one of those ways, it is simply not about judgment or guilt or shame. Just as we all have privilege, we all have poverty. Poverty of spirit, poverty of means, poverty of vision. Jesus’ message to us was not to deny our poverty, but rather to claim our privilege. It is the central question, not just of our disruptive gospels, but of the older Hebrew tradition out of which Jesus came. It is a question that the faithful must ask on a daily basis – how will I choose today to see my privilege and not just my poverty.
How are we privileged people and what are we doing with our privilege?
As unlikely as it may seem, the only woman in scripture to be called by name as a disciple has left us with clues as to how to respond. Tradition suggests that Tabitha/Dorcas was herself a widow. She had experienced loss, and would have had, by the standards of her society, very little social standing or power. And yet, she went about not just living, but doing good works and acts of charity for others. She used her entitlement to poverty and turned it into her platform for privilege. She ministered to the poverty in herself from a place of privilege.
So following her example, how might we claim our privilege to overcome our own poverty and the poverty of our world? It begins with honestly asking yourself where are you privileged and what are you doing with your privilege. It begins with honestly asking ourselves as a community where we are privileged and what are we doing with our privilege. And it ends with that one sermon that Mahan always preached: grace, grace, grace, God’s grace!