Mighty, Underestimated

Dr. Tamika Cross

Luke 18:1-8

We all have a friend who’s constantly underestimated or misjudged.

Or that person in your friend group may be you.

Because of their size, because of how young they look, because of their race or their gender or their real or perceived economic status  — usually it’s a combination of some of these factors — these folks are regularly underestimated. Most regularly, through no fault of their own and through all the fault of the world’s assumptions, this affects how they are seen professionally.

Take Tamika Cross, a physician who, this week on a flight from Detroit to Minneapolis, went into “doctor mode” when a man a few rows in front of her became unresponsive. Cross, an obstetrician and a gynecologist and also a young black woman, attempted to get a flight attendant’s attention to let them know she was a doctor and could help the unresponsive man.

Dr. Cross was not prepared for the response she got. “Oh no, sweetie, put [your] hand down,” the flight attendant said to Dr. Cross, who was ready and willing to help. “We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”

Even after a few frustrated attempts to exercise her expertise in the unconscious man’s service, Dr. Cross was told that she would have to show credentials and questioned about where she works. Moments later, a middle aged white man, also a doctor, was escorted to the man’s seat without showing any credentials other than his more expected medical professional looks. Though Dr. Cross was eventually consulted in the man’s service, the entire story and experience made me nervous as a frequent traveler and as an American: do we really still underestimate young professionals and female professionals, especially young female professionals of color, this way? (1)

Or, more humorously, take my friend Kathleen. She is currently a United Methodist pastor in the DC area. Kathleen, a white woman in her early thirties, is often misjudged by those around her to be a teenager despite having more varied life and professional experiences — and, honestly, better pastoral instincts — than many fifty year olds. Kathleen and I became good friends a few years ago when she married my college friend and then, as a second career seminarian, was a seminary intern at the hospital where I was a chaplain.

Seminary interns had most of the same responsibilities as the full time chaplains. They were still charged with attending to deaths, comforting patients in crisis, and handling codes as the on call chaplain. One day, Kathleen was called to her regular medical floor for a code — a man was in cardiac arrest. Kathleen went to be with the family while the medical team worked on the patient.

She found the room and the patient’s girlfriend, where she stayed by her side through an immense amount of family drama, going back and forth between the medical staff and the family, until the patient was finally pronounced dead. Kathleen then continued to navigate the crazy situation with arguing family members and girlfriend, going from person to person as chaplains do, hearing them and comforting them, and was finally walking down the hall with the patient’s girlfriend, her arm around her, consoling her, when an attending nurse came up behind the both of them and put her arms around them together.

“Aww, how sweet,” Kathleen thought, right before the nurse said “Don’t worry, y’all, I’ll call the chaplain.”
I told her next time to turn so that her badge was visible, look the nurse in the eye, and say “And I’ll call the nurse.”

How often do we embarrass ourselves and others, not to mention put others in harm’s way, because we underestimate people based on how they look?

With regard to the Gospel story about the widow, I have to confess: until this week I’ve underestimated her.

You see, we are told from the beginning of today’s Gospel reading that Jesus’ goal in telling this story was to tell the people the importance of praying and not losing heart.

The entire point of the story is to give them hope. As my other chaplain colleague was fond of saying, “To keep the rumor alive that there is a higher power that just might care about them enough to move in their lives.”

And then Jesus tells us about the judge who had no fear of God and no respect for people. And he tells us about the widow who keeps coming, day after day, to the judge, asking for justice, until he finally relents. Now, the translation I read this morning says “so that she may not wear me out.” And so I’ve always thought of this woman as sweet, meek, and persistent. But “wear me out” is a muddy phrase and not the best way to translate this.

My New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson prefers to put it another way. He interprets the judge to say this instead: “so that she may not finally come and give me a black eye.” Another translation says “so that she may not finally slap me in the face.”

And this was the point that I had to admit that I had underestimated this widow all along.

You see, we are told twice in this reading that the judge is a real piece of work who ain’t care about nothing. He is 100% the least likely of any judge on the planet to listen to her. Do we really think that he’s swayed by her persistence? I don’t.

I think that, instead, each and every time this lady comes, she’s madder and madder. This is no small, meek widow. This is a feisty lady who’s tired of being underestimated. And so the judge, when her anger is at a fever pitch, finally gives her what she wants so she won’t pop him in the face.

That tells quite a different story, doesn’t it?

And we are told that God, who is just, will even more swiftly grant justice. The judge did not see the woman for what she was at first, but the God who created her does. And that same God would be underestimated, betrayed, hung on a cross, and left for dead, and we all know how that turned out.
How often do we sell ourselves — and others — short at a glance?

Today, we have a budget meeting after church. We will have to look at our finances and make decisions together. Of course, we can sell ourselves short. We can see ourselves as vulnerable, live in fear, and draw ourselves in further. The widow could have done this too. She had no one to speak up for her but herself. She could have regarded her lonely estate as lowly and given up altogether, relying, if she was lucky, on her sons to take care of her.

Instead, I call you to be the small and mighty congregation that I know you to be. I call you instead to be feisty and determined, intent on finding a way to do what God has called us to do in the world.

Because as Jesus says, the world may sell us short. We may sell ourselves short. But the God who created us sees exactly who and what we are and knows exactly what we’re capable of.

Like the flight attendants on the plane and like the nurse at the hospital who underestimated my friend, it is easy to fall victim to our own initial assumptions about a situation. But often, our assumptions are wrong, and they hurt the community.

So let us look fully at ourselves, trying to see ourselves for what we are — as God does.

Young women of color are doctors. Small young white women are chaplains. Even you might see yourself as competent and capable, if you could only see yourself for what you truly are.

And, finally, small congregations have the nimbleness, feistiness, and determination to do amazing things. My pastor friends at larger churches pine for the ability to do what we can do, without the red tape of a corporation-like, over-programmed large church.

We have a choice in our own lives and in our congregation’s life today. You can choose to see yourself as the world might: small. Inferior. Vulnerable. Not unlike the way that world would see the widow of Jesus’ story.

Or you can see yourself the way that Jesus saw that widow: able to sway even the most jerkface judge simply by the determination in her heart and by the fire in her belly.

So let’s gather at the table today with the God who never left us, and the God from whom our feistiness comes. And then let’s go and celebrate who we are and what we’ve done over the last year, and then let’s imagine together what we can do together in the future. We serve a feisty Savior. I think it’s only right that Our Savior’s be a feisty congregation to match. Amen.

(1) Derek Hawkins, “Flight attendant to black female doctor: ‘We’re looking for actual physicians’”, Washington Post, 14 October 2016.

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