Sermon by Rev. Scott Gustafson
One of my overriding concerns in preaching on the assigned texts this morning is how can I be faithful to these texts and still have a few friends left in the congregation. With the exception of the passage from Corinthians, all these texts draw a sharp contrast between “the haves” – which is, quite frankly, me and most, but not all of you – and the “have nots.” And, in this Gospel lesson – Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount – not only does Jesus bless the poor, the hungry, those who mourn and those who are hated and excluded from proper society on account of their allegiance to the Son of Man, but, unlike Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s version casts “Woes” or perhaps even curses on the rich, the sated, those who laugh now, and those who all people speak well of. Jeremiah says pretty much the same thing in the Old Testament lesson, and the Psalm does not help up out either.
In fact, since the dawn of civilization which, by the way, occurred between 8 and 10 thousand years ago, “civilized” society has been divided between the haves (who are the minority) and the have nots (who are the majority). This distinction is, by the way, a mark of civilization itself. All civilizations divide the smaller group “the haves” from the much larger group “the have nots” sometimes with a middle group in between. The haves get to make all the laws. They create the religions that justify these arbitrary laws and moral codes. Different criteria are used to make this arbitrary divisions. In fact, those who study different civilizations clearly see that these divisions are arbitrary. They are, however, unlikely to see the same sort of divides their own civilization as being arbitrary.
No, we believe our civilization gets it right, and these divisions are established by God or nature itself. This attitude leads to what we call exceptionalism which enabled one President of the United States to say to Russian when they took Crimea from the Ukraine that no nation has the right to interfere in the inner workings of a sovereign nation. I can’t remember if the President made this comment from Bagdad or not. But this is exceptionalism. The belief that anything we do is morally right because we do it.
In any case, our civilization calls the force of nature that separates the “haves” from the “have nots” “The Market.”
We understand “The Market” to be the source of all goodness, wealth and well-being. It bestows its benefits on all of us who act according to “The Market’s” rules like “hard work,” individualism and self-interest. A corollary to this belief is that if you are a “have not” in our civilization, it’s pretty much your own fault. You just did not work hard enough, and society has no obligation to you as a consequence. “The Market” is our only hope to make our lives better. “The Market” is that “to which we look for all good and in which we seek refuge in every time of need.” In Luther’s large catechism he writes, “That to which you look for all good and in which you seek refuge in every time of need. . . that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your god.”
Obviously, in any battle between “the haves” and “the have nots,” the haves have tremendous advantages and almost always prevail. They have money, expertise, ideology, religion, power, armaments as well as those who make the laws on their side. The odds are stacked against the “have nots” in any struggle they might have with “the haves.”
Well the Bible contends throughout that the “have nots” are not alone in this struggle. The Biblical God joins this struggle on their behalf. For example, God hears the cries of his people who have fallen into slavery in Egypt and leads them out of slavery.
By the way, I call any civilization that employs slavery a radical commodity culture. A radical commodity culture is a culture in which anything is for sale including human beings. A radical commodity culture is not limited to places where slavery legal. We are such a culture. The logic behind our radical commodity culture was clearly and precisely stated in a memo that Lawrence Summers circulated throughout the World Bank in 1991 when he its chief economist. In it, Summers argued for dumping toxic waste products on less developed countries. This memo is available on line at www.whirledbank.org. Whirled is spelled “w-h-i-r-l-e-d.” I won’t quote the entire memo because it would put those of you who are not asleep now to sleep, but I will quote two lines.
Summers writes, “I think that the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage countries is impeccable and we (at the World Bank) should face up to that.”
I’ll add here that he thought the logic was impeccable because our radical commodity culture has figured out how to value the worth of a human being! It’s a simple formula. A human being was worth what that person is projected to make in his or her life time. Since people projected to make $100,000 are worth-less than people projected to make $2,000,000, Summers argued that they should be the recipients of toxic waste dumps because their deaths were cheaper than the deaths of those projected to make more money. The economic logic, as he said, is impeccable.
Summers ends his Memo saying, “The problem with arguments against his proposals for more pollution in Less Developed Countries ((crazy objections) like intrinsic human rights, moral reasons, social concerns, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every bank proposal. . .”
This, by the way, is true. We glimpsed it in the 60’s when Ford reasoned that the cost of replacing a $12 part in all Ford Pintos exceeded the cost of the claims that would arise through the estimated 180 deaths and 180 injuries caused by the malfunctioning part, or GMs more recent Cobalt debacle which employed the same logic. We see the same logic in pharmaceutical companies who think it is a good idea to promote opiates for acute pain using the lie that they are not addictive (something I knew to be wrong when I was 12 years old). As a consequence of the quest to sell these opiates, many have died, and millions of lives have been disrupted simply by following their doctor’s advice. Unnecessary deaths always occur when human lives are monetized, as they are in our commodity culture and in the commodity cultures against which Moses and the prophets fought.
Not only did the Biblical God join the fight on behalf of the “have nots” in Egypt, when the Hebrews are liberated, their political agenda appears to be the attempt to be unlike other nations. They try to order themselves differently from the Empires that surround them and threaten them. One thing this means is they govern themselves according to a Mosaic code that grants intrinsic rights to those who are on the margins of society – widows, orphans and sojourners (immigrants). Another thing this means is that this Hebrew confederacy does not have a king. True, the monarchy was always a temptation, and the eventually Israel succumbed to that temptation. But when the people came to the high priest Samuel and demanded he anoint them a king so that they could be like other nations, God told Samuel to honor their request but make this warning.
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your dons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and put them to work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer on that day. (I Sam 8: 11-18).
One overlooked Biblical fact is that prophets do not arise as a separate office in Israel until Israel has a monarchy. Before the monarchy political leaders like Moses, Joshua, Deborah or Gideon also were prophets. A king could not be a prophet because, with rare exceptions, kings expounded ideologies, religions and policies that create and reinforce distinctions between “the haves” and the “have nots.” Apart from David, God did not raise up kings. God calls prophets to oppose kings, and stories of this prophetic opposition to kingly power is much of the Old Testament’s content although you probably do not know this because the Church largely controls what is read to you from the Bible, and the Church is largely controlled by civilized men and women who still enforce the moral distinctions between “the haves” and the “have nots.”
Nonetheless, the prophet Nathan opposes David. Elijah and Elisha oppose the kings of Israel as do Amos and Hosea. Amos and Hosea largely said that God would use the Empire of Assyria to conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel if they did not repent. Jeremiah and Ezekiel said pretty much the same thing to Judah whose royal ideology declared that Judah could never be conquered because they had the Temple of the Lord. Jeremiah spoke against this ideology and was right. The Babylonians took the people of Judah into exile in 487 BC. Even in exile the prophets were not silent. They continued to speak out against the kings of their respective civilizations because like the Pharaoh, these kings were at the apex of commodity cultures that continued to buy and sell everything including human beings. When Jesus blesses the “have nots” in our Gospel lesson and condemns the “haves,” he is simply in line with the Old Testament Prophets. Moreover, the blessings and condemnations are particularly appropriate for our own commodity-based culture where everything – including human beings – are up for sale or held hostage.
You may not agree with me, but I believe our culture holds our children hostage, and I am not talking about what is going on at our border. One of the saddest things about that episode to me is that no one recognizes how normal it is. The same sort of thing goes on in welfare for work programs as well as the Welfare reform programs instituted by the Clinton Administration. They are both a little different, so let’s just talk about welfare for work.
Simply put this means that all able-bodied people have to work at something – they have to put hours in – so they can receive subsistence help from the government. In some states, this means that a mother must work in order to get food stamps and other monetary aide to feed her children. This is the sort of hostage taking that I am talking about. It began with the “welfare reform” initiated during the Clinton administration. You might ask why we try to force single mothers to work – may be take a part-time job at McDonalds or do some sort of volunteer work – to get food stamps for their kids. The answer could be that our corporate commodity culture needs a supply of cheap labor, and these laws accommodate this need.
Now there are many paths the rest of this sermon can take, but I’ve decided to speak to those of us who our Gospel lesson condemns or casts woes upon. What, if anything, can we do about this stuff. Somethings many of you already do. Many of you feed the poor, give money to various causes, support the “have nots” politically, offer your time in many places to serve others, help those who are in need in our congregation, etc.
But what you might not be doing – I don’t know may-be you are – is understanding your activity sacramentally. For, just as Jesus says that the bread of communion is his body, so does he say, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” In other words, when you do such things, you do it for yourself because in these activities you encounter Jesus and receive his grace. You might not be understanding these opportunities as opportunities to give thanks. (By the way, we have a sacrament we sometimes call by the name Eucharist which is Greek for Thanks! An entire sacrament just called Thank you). Keep doing this stuff and more. Push yourselves beyond your limits.
But our 2nd lesson provides me with something else to say. It’s about imagination.
One of the most oppressing aspects of every radical commodity-based civilization is its attempt to limit your options. In the past this goal is accomplished by threat and violence, and, more subtly, through religious myths, songs, stories and doctrines that reinforce the views of the civilization in question. We may be better at this because we use advertising, social media, and entertainment to do the same. These are things we want to do. We are not forced to do them. Anyway, to the extent that these forces are effective, they drastically undermine our abilities to imagine alternatives to the dominant order.
This lack of imagination is seen everywhere. Most young people want or desire pretty much what their friends want or desire and get somewhat depressed or ostracized when they do not have such things. Most adults fear terrorist even though the chances of being killed or injured by a terrorist is miniscule compared with being killed or injured in an automobile accident. So, wear seat belts, get the government to regulate the transportation industry for more safety and spend a lot less on the fight in its fight against terrorism.
Yesterday I read this in a book by James Riser called Pay any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War. “One study found that government spending on homeland security has been so excessive that the only way it could be considered cost-effective would be if it funded programs that prevented 1667 terrorist attacks each year like the 2010 Times Square attempted car bombing. That would mean stopping four terrorist attacks in the United States every day” We’ve spent around $4 trillion on homeland security in the past decade or so. Might think about another use for our money, but fear limits the imagination.
These severe limits on our imaginations are also seen in the dreams most parents have for their children – involving good educations and good jobs with good benefits like health care and 401Ks – could also be described as hoping their lives will be locked into some deadening job. Moreover, there is not one politician in the country who does not think that the answer to just about every economic problem is more and better jobs. They just disagree on how to provide these jobs – and they haven’t done very well at this since 1980. We better start thinking differently if automation begins to replace our workers at a greater and greater rate. (As someone who has never wanted a job in his life, I find this inability to imagine any alternative to jobs absolutely astounding, but it does reflect our radical commodity-based civilization’s ability restrict our imaginations).
For the past month now – it seems like years sometimes – I have been taking care of my grandchild for a couple days a week. I have found that Simon and Garfinkle songs put her to sleep so I’ve been listening to a lot of Simon and Garfinkle. One song is call “My Little Town.” And one of the verses in this song goes like this.
In my little town/ All of the rainbows are black/ It’s not that the colors aren’t there/ It’s imagination they lack/ Every thing’s the same back/In my little town.
It is easier for a child than it is for an adult, but it’s not impossible to use your imagination. You can, for example, see the sunrise in an ordinary way – a small yellow/orange disk piercing the horizon. Our you can see the same phenomenon to the tune of the Alleluia Chorus. Same phenomenon. Different experience. One might be an annoying inconvenience to a commuter who cannot see the traffic very well as a consequence. The other is something that may buoy an otherwise routine day. This is the power of imagination.
Today in the Church there is a struggle between fundamentalists and progressive Christians. In keeping with traditional religious support of past civilizations, fundamentalist try to limit your interpretations of the Bible to some standard moral code. This is how they try to control your imagination. The progressives are a little different. They try to limit your interpretations of the Bible to the limits imposed by rationalism or so-called scientific reasoning. They have a lot of trouble with stuff like God being an actual actor in history – which, by the way, is exactly what the entire Bible is about.
They also have trouble with strange flights of dogmatic fancy like the Virgin birth, miracles or the resurrection because these things simply do not happen in the natural world. We are far too sophisticated to believe such things. But this is not new. People were saying such things in Paul’s day otherwise he would not have written, “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection for the dead?”
All I want to say right now is “What would happen to your imagination if you placed Christ’ resurrection at the forefront of you brains in all you said and did?” I think it would change everything – all your decisions – because the resurrection opens up horizons that are an alternative to the possibilities to which our conventional wisdom limits us. Just to show how imaginative I have become here, I will say that how something like this might change our lives and our decisions is disclosed in a scene from one of the top 10 or 15 motion pictures of all time. I am, of course talking about Outlaw Jose Wales – directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as Jose Wales himself. In one scene he and his new friend an old Cherokee Indian have a surprise encounter with four bounty hunters who are after Jose. These men are quickly dispatched. After fleeing town, the Indian asks Jose how he decided who to shot at first. Jose tells him his thought process regarding the three guys on the left who Jose had in fact killed. The Indian then asks, “What about the guy on the right?” Jose responds, “I didn’t pay him no mind.” He spits and says, “You were there.”
To me this is the essence of the power of faith. As Jose can say to his partner “I didn’t pay him no mind because You were there,” we can say the same about our own deaths and perhaps other Woes that confront us because Jesus is there. Because Jesus is there, we don’t pay it no mind. We are free from such considerations. We can deal with the task at hand knowing that Jesus is there in the midst of what might otherwise be the worst thing that can happen.
What might even mess up your mind or imagination further is the idea that instead of being Jose and God playing the part of his Indian companion, we are the Indian and Jose is God, and, in the end when we interview God about God’s thought process, we will find that the things God might not pay any mind to some things because we are there or at least we are supposed to be there – with the poor, the outcast, the widow, orphan and sojourner in our land.
Text: Jeremiah 17: 5-10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20, Luke 6:17-26