Be Open

Like many texts from the Bible Proverbs 22 and James 2 encourage ancient and modern audiences to treat the poor with fairness and equity. These texts and others like it decry those who take advantage of the vulnerable. This is an ongoing theme in scripture.[1]

In Mark’s text, we see Jesus rebuking a woman with a suffering child. Jesus called her a dog, surprisingly reflecting the prejudice and tribalism of his own day. More surprising, he learns from her. He changes his mind after the woman responds. Jesus, who we name as our teacher and savior, models learning for us today. He changes his mind.

Justice for the vulnerable is indeed a complex issue. The gift in such complexity, as this collection of lectionary texts demonstrates, is that it has a great leveling effect; all of us become both teachers and learners. If Jesus could both teach and learn about justice for the vulnerable among us, so can we.

We live in a time where we are calling other siblings of God dogs. We are divided. We are showing preference to the rich and calling the poor undeserving. Maybe you or I aren’t doing it specifically, but that seems to be the narrative we hear on the cable news networks and the outrage machine of social media. The following story is 100% true. There’s a court case and several documentaries to support this story I’m about to tell you. I won’t list them at this time, you can check the sermon footnotes for your own research.[2]

Think of this as that famed radio show, Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story. Sometimes we just get the headlines. Or worse, we get the urban legend… a tale so filled with half-truths that it little resembles what happened.

A post on Facebook shared by Kate reminded me of the “hot coffee lawsuit.”[3] It has become an urban legend to show how frivolous lawsuits have become.

The story goes that a woman bought coffee from a well-known place, drove with it between her legs, spilled it on herself, sued the company because it was hot, and took a few million dollars from the company.

We, the hearers of the story might react by saying, “Wait, she sued because coffee was hot? And she was driving with it between her legs? What did she expect? Anyone can sue for anything these days.” I know I did when I first heard this story.

And NOW. The rest. Of the story. The woman did have hot coffee spill on her. She was not driving. She was 79 years old and in the passenger seat while her grandson drove. He pulled into a parking spot, where she was trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car didn’t have cupholders, so she put it between her legs, and when she pulled the lid off, it spilled all over her.

The spilled coffee was served at nearly 190 degrees, which caused 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body, required multiple skin grafts, necessitated further care after she left the hospital, and left her permanently disfigured. She originally tried to settle with the company and asked for $20,000; they responded with an offer of $800.

At that point, she hired an attorney who discovered that the company required franchisees to serve coffee between 180-190 degrees and no other coffee in the city was served at more than 160-degrees. At 190-degrees, liquid causes third degree burns in less than 3 seconds and would burn the mouth if consumed at that temperature. Coffee at the lower 160-degree takes over 20 seconds to cause third degree burns. Furthermore, the company in question had been sued over SEVEN HUNDRED times in the prior decade for coffee being too hot and had settled up to $500,000 in cases and already been told to lower the temperature.

Ultimately, the case went to trial, where a jury sided with the woman, and what she received as compensation is unknown.

How did this become so legendary? Simple. The company knew the case was going poorly, so it looked to the one thing it had that the woman didn’t: a bully pulpit. They started a massive PR effort that was basically a smear campaign, painting the woman as some sly dog trying to take their hard-earned money. And it worked, to the point that the annual fake “awards” ceremony for frivolous lawsuits is named after the woman.

As for the woman? The then 81-year-old didn’t have the money, platform, or a desire to fight back. She used the money to pay for a live-in nurse. She watched company after company use her story as a punching bag to deny taking responsibility of the damage they’ve done to others. She died in 2004 at age 91.

When I first heard the real story, I reacted in anger. It just feels wrong. What other stories that I’ve heard about others could also be lies? We’re subject to these urban myths about the undeserving poor and welfare queens in their Cadillacs. Those who will con us out of our hard-earned money.

I will not deny that these folks exist. There are constant email scams looking for gift cards. We were subject to one of those last year when a scammer was using a fake email to try to get money from you. I have encountered a few folks who were trying to find a room or a meal and they felt they needed to lie to get it. We gave the room and food anyway, how they got there is between them and God. We are a place of grace and not judgment. Even though I get frustrated and angry with some of those who ask for help at the church.

I’m often reminded by our financial manager Jeff and you, church, that we don’t exist for ourselves. That those who are poor and hurting and looking for help should come here. We also exist to calculate the cost and call those in power to account. We focus on the poor because they don’t have PR companies to discredit and spin the story to their favor. It is our job to prophetically call out companies that use PR campaigns to cover up the harm they cause society. What shall we do about it? Shall we get rid of companies? No. I’m not saying that at all.

I’m suggesting we live as James 2 suggests and do not know worry about who is deserving or undeserving. That is beyond our pay grade. As Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “while we were yet sinners, Christ gave his life for us.” We’re all undeserving of God’s love in some area of our lives. We each have our faults.

My answer which I submit for your consideration is simpler. We learn and be open to other stories just as Jesus was open to them. He called that woman a dog. That was a PR campaign that he bought into in his culture. Yet the woman reminded Jesus of their shared humanity, and he changed his mind. He helped. He healed. If we are Christ’s disciples, that is our call as well.

Now some of us may go and get legal degrees and fight for justice and equity in the law. Some of us may watch a few documentaries, especially when we hear other people being called dogs, or worse, and share these stories with others.[4] We can be open to the stories. Maybe the story we have heard isn’t what actually happened.

It is my view that while we were but sinners, we are also made in God’s image. We have good in us as well. And sometimes the headlines and the yelling and all the noise and anxiety we are feeling drown that out.

I will tell you another story that’s equally true. When Neal Foard was a little kid in 1969, Vietnam was tearing our country apart.[5] They’d shot JFK and Bobby Kennedy and MLK and Malcolm X. There was the Zodiac Killer and the Manson family. It felt like everything was coming apart.  Everyone had just lost their mind.

He’s in the car that June with his dad. His dad’s faith in humanity was at a low ebb. He thought everyone was awful. The car breaks down outside a small town. It’s a Sunday, so nothing is open. This is long before cell phones or ATMs, they had no way of calling home. No banks were open to get cash. Neil and his dad had about $10 cash between them.

A young cowboy pulls up in a flatbed and offers to tow them to the mechanic in town. The dad tries to refuse and say he can’t pay, but the cowboy doesn’t mind and he gives them a tow to the mechanic. Well, like I said, it was Sunday, so the cowboy has to go find the mechanic. The mechanic doesn’t have the part to fix the car, so they have to go find that guy to open up the part store. All the while the dad is complaining and saying how this is too much and don’t bother and there’s no way to repay.

Well, the young cowboy says that day he has to unload a whole bunch of watermelons off a boxcar. It’s hard and sweaty work. It’s about 140 degrees in the boxcar. But that’d be a good trade. So, the dad and the son unload the watermelons onto the flatbed. They are drenched in sweat and dirty after all that but the car is fixed upon their return.

The dad thanks them and goes to get in the car, but the mechanic speaks up. “Whoa, whoa, where do you think you’re going?” Neil sees his dad get red in the face, all the fear and distrust comes to the surface. He stiffens up waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The mechanic sees this and says, “No, no, no! My wife’s gonna make us all Sunday dinner and you and the boy can get a shower and a clean shirt and it’ll make the drive easier.”

They sit down to a chicken dinner from the chickens in the backyard and corn on the cob from the stalks across the street. Best meal that Neil has ever had. Now his dad doesn’t say more than three words on the drive home. But as Neil is tucked into bed that night, his dad says, “No matter what you see in the movies or on TV or you read in the papers; you listen to me. That’s how people really are.”

Keep the faith, my friends. Seek out and learn from those others are calling dogs. Get the full story, it might not be what we’ve been told. If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself” you are doing right.

Works Cited

[1][1] Walter Brueggemann’s Money and Possessions is an excellent and detailed book which covers the economics of every book of the bible. The major theme throughout: help the poor.

[2][2] The court case is Liebeck v. McDonalds and was the subject of the documentary Hot Coffee.

[3][3] Kate shared the post on 8/21/21 originally posted by Brandon Metheny on 8/18/19. Brandon is the admissions coordinator at the University of Richmond’s School of Law and occasionally posts interesting summaries of historic legal cases.

[4][4] A great voice for the poor is the Rev William Barber III and his Poor People’s Campaign

[5][5] and on Neal’s TikTok account that I can’t figure out how to link to entitled “A Postcard from 1969”

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