Pentecost 9, Year C
Readings: Amos 8:1–12; Psalm 52; (Colossians 1:15–28); Luke 10:38–42
Hands up all those who think the boss should get ten or twelve million a year. OK, hands up all those who think they should get ten or twelve million a year. Hands up all those who are pining for a minimum wage job with lousy hours and no security. Now, hands up all those who think they are paying way too much for a cup of coffee these days. Hands up all those who are impressed with the tender care of big oil companies toward the environment. And hands up all those who have figured out how to live without relying on fossil fuels.
We’re caught, caught in this economy. When it comes to other people, we’re pretty sharp analysts. When it comes to ourselves, it’s not called private life for nothing, right? What if we could have a different economy? Without moving to North Korea.
In God’s economy, either everyone is well paid, or no one is paid. In God’s economy, people do not go hungry, or homeless. In God’s economy, it is embarrassing to be rich, shameful. In God’s economy, people do not use up the future to get ahead in the present. In God’s economy, oil is not spilled, species are not extinguished, streams, rivers and lakes are all clean to drink, and the air to breathe.
How do we know? People like Amos were tuned in something. They heard voices, they saw things, somehow they figured out that conventional wisdom was actually doing great harm, and that there was another, deeper wisdom. Did you catch that list in the Amos passage we heard earlier? All the sinning people were doing against other people and the earth in the name of a buck? Exploitation of the poor, cheating on weights and measures, human slavery, profiteering.
One might have hoped that almost three thousand years would have seen such excesses put behind us. Just open the business section, though, or listen to the news, and it seems we never learn. It was just two weeks ago when we heard the divine promise in the psalm to turn mourning into dancing, sackcloth into joy. Now it’s the opposite: “I will turn your feasts into mourning.” And that’s not all. Throw in darkness at noon, a new set of sackcloth clothes, and baldness, too. God the economist is ticked. The point of springing a people from slavery was to be a light to the nations, a good example, not just more of the same.
But how does the Jesus story fit into this picture? Doesn’t Jesus privilege the person who sits at his feet to reflect on the gospel, and give second place to the one who brings in the food and carries away the dishes? That’s what seems to be happening, isn’t it? Why was this story kept? And what kind of economy would that make?
Luke has just told the story about the gist of the law. A lawyer asks Jesus what he has to do inherit eternal life. Jesus says, What’s your take on it? The man answers by combining two commandments, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus, to give the heart of the message: love. Love of God, love of neighbour. I agree, says Jesus. But who is my neighbour, the man wants to know. How far does this love stuff go? When have I done enough?
Luke then produces a little list to illustrate. There’s the Good Samaritan story. Your neighbour could be a total stranger who looks after you when you are hurt and helpless. Then comes the Mary and Martha story. This is what love of God looks like—a person who studies the faith. Not just any person: a woman. Surprise! The person who most acts like a neighbour could be one of those people, an enemy. The person who most demonstrates love of God could be one of those other people. You know—a woman.
A feminist theologian gives a slightly different take on Martha, though. She’s not hanging on Jesus’ every word because she already knows it. She gets what Paul says about using one’s freedom for the greater good. She is acting as a servant because someone has to put food on the table if people are going to eat.
There are signs of God’s economy all around. Volunteerism is not dead, far from it, luckily. We know what happens here at this church. And the recent floods in Alberta reveal that many people there are still motivated to help strangers in need. The growth of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and CUSO show that people will go to great trouble to help others across the world. But we know that things are not good everywhere. We live in an economy that can be brutal for people at the bottom of it. Jobs shift around the world without regard for workers or the environment. Owners and investors have rights, rights protected by treaties and the police, but workers and citizens are losing rights, and rarely see the state standing up for them.
In God’s economy, tears and hugs are valuable currency. Child raising is a full-time, well-regarded profession. You get credits for using less.
The psalmist complains that people are boasting of their evil, speaking deceitfully, hurting with their words. Meanwhile, in our economy, forty-two percent of those working in the public and private sectors have witnessed misconduct at work: misuse of company property, harm to employees, privacy violations and conflict of interest. Half of those who witnessed something wrong didn’t report it.*
The psalmist predicts God will deal with evil doers and evil speakers. And it won’t be pretty. “God will break you down forever, root you out of the land of the living.” I don’t know if that happened or not. The new study suggests somewhat different consequences: “When wrongdoing is detected, and becomes front-page news, that can impact an organization’s reputation and financial well-being.” Hmm. The Canadian Senate’s reputation has been affected, true. Enron collapsed amidst scandal, true. But big banks and other financial firms that wrecked the economy are flourishing. Politicians who relaxed the oversight rules on them get re-elected, except a few mayors in Quebec who have stepped down over allegations of corruption.
What to do? Go along to get along? Keep your head down? Turn a blind eye? It’s summer. Can’t we get an easier topic? Take it easy for now? Tempting. But what makes us tick here is truth telling, devotion to neighbour, radical hospitality, and all of it flavoured with fun, and compassion. God is a different kind of economist. Different things are taken into account. Different values are assigned. A different outcome is expected. We love that, all year ’round.
It’s not easy to live in one economy while trying to live into another one. What is my relationship to money? I have to have it, some of it, to get by. I guess I could move into a commune and grow my own tofu to relax the hold of money and this economy on my life, and to reduce the impact of my life on the planet. But unless I do that, I need a roof, groceries, savings, the odd frill or treat, and then there I am, without even trying, accumulating points on that reward card, staring at investment or pension statements trying to decide how unethical I am, being enticed with some sort of goodie if I hand over my personal info to another corporation and be “loyal” to it, wondering how I got so deeply sucked in.
I will be Mary, then. (Mary as in sister of Lazarus, not merry, as in Christmas). I will study Jesus’ life and teachings. I will let it wash over me and fill me with passion for something different. As an individual, I will lower my carbon footprint. I will buy more fair trade products. I will try to make my investments ethical. I will try to make money my servant, not my master. Or will I? As a member or friend of this church, I will work on us being a good congregation, a good representation of the body of Christ, because we are more faithful and more effective when we work together. I will reflect on the struggles that our neighbours here in this part of the city are facing, and how the gospel speaks to them. Or will I?
These are some of the questions we are in the middle of addressing, as we redevelop our mission. What does it mean to be Christian these days? What does it mean to be an engaged part of this here church? God’s economy is so much more exciting and satisfying than this one we have, the one that lurches from crisis to crisis, ruining lives and the planet. God’s economy is full of wondrous possibilities. It is so rewarding to be where people are asking these questions. You can see where I’m going with this. Is this our passion? Do we imagine our church being a place of resistance to evil, a searcher for justice, an example of a different way of relating to one another and the planet? And what might that look like?
It’s not a total change from what we’re doing now. In fact, it’s not much change at all. It’s about how we frame who we are and what we do. The stories we tell about ourselves and where and how we tell them. The insights we have into the conventional thinking around us. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.
*The survey was conducted in early June, 2013 by Ipsos Reid, and commissioned by ClearView Strategic Partners. It was reported in the Toronto Star on July 4, 2013.