I read this story recently reflecting on how we see our resources and how we use them:
She asked him, 'How much are you selling the eggs for?'
The old seller replied, '$.25 an egg, Madam.'
She said to him, 'I will take 6 eggs for $1.25 or I will leave.'
The old seller replied, 'Come take them at the price you want. Maybe, this is a good beginning because I have not been able to sell even a single egg today.'
She took the eggs and walked away feeling she had won. She got into her fancy car and went to a posh restaurant with her friend. There, she and her friend, ordered whatever they liked. They ate a little and left a lot of what they ordered. Then she went to pay the bill. The bill costed her $100.00. She gave $110.00 and asked the owner of the restaurant to keep the change.
I saw something very similar to this when I was a college student in Guatemala. We visited an outdoor market where extremely poor people were selling the work of their own hands. Some were so poor that they did not have shoes, and were wearing very old and worn clothing. One of the young men who went down with us prided himself on his ability to haggle. At one booth a woman was selling beautifully embroidered backpacks for $10 each. My friend haggled her down to $1, and was so proud of his accomplishment. But another member of our group went up to the woman and asked her how long it had taken her to embroider the bag. It had been very carefully stitched and she admitted to us that it had taken the better part of a week. A week’s worth of hard work for $1. My friend said, “Your work is worth more. I will pay the difference.” And she handed her a $20 bill. The tears of gratitude in the woman’s face spoke volumes to both of us.
But the young man travelling with us saw this interaction and was outraged. He said, “you took away her dignity by not honoring the haggling! If it was really a hardship to her, she would not have made the sale!” My friend replied, “sometimes a dollar and the food that it can buy, no matter how little, is more needed and therefore a person is willing to lower their price to make the sale. That is not about giving them dignity by honest haggling. It is about giving them wanting to live another day. It also does not give a person dignity to fail to honor the amount of work she put into making that bag. You did not honor the care and artistry of that work. No, we gave her her dignity back by honoring the great work she had done.”
In a similar way, I have known of other people who willingly and intentionally buy items made by poorer people, sometimes paying high prices for them, even though the items are not needed. In one such case a child saw his father giving even more than was asked for something cheaply sold at an outdoor market. The child asked why? To which the father replied, "It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child.”
Those moments where vision is bigger than our pocket books, where care and compassion are bigger than our fear of not having enough for ourselves, where a choice to honor the work of another is bigger than our need to have a good deal: those are moments that reflect the promise stated today in the book of Luke, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
These small acts of care and compassion: these are responses to the invitation we have from God to be part of ushering in this new era, this new hope, this new possibility. These are steps towards bringing the mountains down and filling the valleys. They are steps towards an even-ing of the plains, evening of the resources, a leveling out of the abundance.
Someone said recently, “The powerful are doing what they want. And the poor are suffering what they must.” This is not a new thing, as our scriptures show us. This is something that goes on in every age. The promise of Advent, the promise of today’s scripture lessons is that God calls us to something different and is about creating that different thing. The hard part of this is that we are part of those rich folk, just by having places to live, the choice to eat out at restaurants, houses filled with things we don’t “need” but simply want, we are part of the group of mountains that will be brought lower. I know that’s not a comfortable idea, but I know it pains God to see us spend $100 on a meal when there are children starving to death who could eat for a week on that money that we’ve spent on ourselves. That is the bad news: in this new kingdom that God is ushering in, we will not have the wealth and riches we have now.
But the Good News for us is that we are invited to be part of that new creation, invited to be part of ushering in something different for ourselves, for our communities and for the world.
And that is what is most important here. This isn’t really about individuals. While we each are called into action, this image of hills and valleys and mountains is big because it is meant to be. The original concepts of sin and wrongs was not individual but corporate. And these images that are big: mountains, valleys, are so for a purpose. Richard Rohr said it like this, “(The Advent scriptures)… focus… on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called "structural sin" and "institutional evil"). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular "naughty behaviors," which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture. Structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large organizations--including the Church--and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. Yet individuals are condemned for committing these same sins. Such a convenient split will never create great people, nations, or religions.” And it is exactly what is being confronted by passages such as what we read today.
There are signs of hope, both at an individual level and at a bigger level. I think about the work of organizations such as Contra Costa Interfaith Housing. They provide an increasing amount of housing for people who would otherwise slip through the cracks. Some of their housing is for families on the economic edge, some of it is for people with mental or physical disabilities, also living on the edge, and some is for individuals who have simply fallen through the cracks: who did not have the support, the network when things went bad for them, to stand on their own. I’m more aware of this than ever since moving back here to CA. When we first moved back here, the kids and I were without a “home”, without a steady place to live, for several months. I had work: but in this area housing costs are so high that I was unable to rent a three bedroom apartment anywhere out here (and believe me, we tried!). We had a very hard time affording a home to buy, and were only able to finally get into housing by first, buying a total fixer-upper, but second, with the help both of the church and of my parents. In those few months where we were struggling to find housing, we flipped around from friend’s couch to family couch. Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license. Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card. Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well. I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks. In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide. There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills. Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless. Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.
Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without, again, the safety net and resources of other people: the financial help of my extended family and the church, for example. The fact that I had a decently paying job also made a huge difference. And yet even with that job, I needed help financially. I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place. If something had happened to my parents during that time? All of us would have been in serious trouble. This is the reality of people we call “homeless”. These are folk, most of the time, who simply do not have the safety net that we had. Perhaps they also don’t have the training and education that allows them to get a better paying job. But even if they did have that, I can tell you from my own experience, it just would not be enough.
Organizations like CCIH provide that safety network, that support so that families and individuals do not have to fall through the cracks. They are striving, in a small way, to help bring the mountains down and to raise the valleys up: it is something that you participate in, it is a way of ushering in the new era, of doing “advent”, of following God’s call.
Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself…. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” And then, “Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger”
Today we light the candle of peace. And we are reminded that there is no peace where there is injustice, where there is inequity, where there is pain and suffering. And as people of faith, we are called to be part of ushering that in. At Advent we look for that way towards peace, towards justice, towards a raising of the valleys and a bringing of the mountains low. We look for God’s movement in this, and we look for the ways in which God calls us to participate in ushering this in as well. It is an amazing gift to be part of this work. It is a celebration of God-with-us when we can share in this glorious hope for a world in which all have enough and no one is in need. Thanks be to God that God-with-us is a reality not only 2000 years ago, but today as well as we see God in each other, as we experience God through our own work, as we live faithful and loving lives. Amen.