October 14, 2012

Getting What You Paid For

Wealth sticks to the wealthy like an acrylic sweater fresh out of the clothes dryer... a sermon for Proper 23b

Because you trample on the poor, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

During the economic boom of the 80s, someone came up with a T-shirt that read, “The one with the most things when he dies, wins.” This was the era of free-for-all speculation on Wall Street. Investments moved further and further away from actual commodities or industries, from real products or services, to speculation on commodity futures, and indexes, and margins, and even futures of indexes and margins. No longer were people trading just in pork bellies, or even in what pork bellies might be worth some day; They were trading in what the market might think pork bellies might be worth some day. People were trading not just in things, but in what people thought about things — and in what people thought about what people thought about things, if you can believe that — building on a very shaky foundation — if any foundation at all!

Some people managed to make huge fortunes in this rarified world: people like the fictional character Gordon Gecko from the film Wall Street, whose motto was, “Greed is good.” Governments were persuaded by this gospel of acquisition to repeal laws that had been put in place after previous economic disasters, laws designed to prevent a melt-down of the economy. Credit extended beyond the prudent , and people were sold mortgages they could not possibly afford, even in the best of times; and the value of homes came to be keyed not to intrinsic value, intrinsic worth, but as if they only could be worth more and more as time went on — no one would imagine that to be true of a car, yet people had no trouble thinking about it for a house! Meanwhile the distances between the salaries of workers and the wealth of the owners grew greater and greater. The rich grew richer and the poor poorer, and it really did begin to look like the one who died with the most things would win. The balloon kept getting bigger and bigger, and no-one expected it to burst.

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As we all know, this out-of-kilter pile of optimism came crashing down like a Jenga game just a few years ago. The chickens came home to roost to an astonishing degree, and the henhouse was full to overflowing. And sad to say, most of the chickens were dead ducks!

Some years on, it is still true a tiny portion of the population controls a disproportionate amount of the wealth of the world. And these days in the election season, who can turn on the TV without seeing a politician, or a surrogate, or a PAC, or a super-PAC, appealing to a particular worldview — either that prosperity will come by letting the wealthy trickle their wealth down to the poor who eagerly wait below like drought-stricken farmers able to receive this gentle shower of rain; or on the other hand that the government should take more from the wealthy so as to redistribute it more effectively — but still from above, as far as those below are concerned.

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Of course, as our Scriptures from Amos and Mark remind us, there is nothing new in this. There is nothing new about the magnetic attraction of wealth — how money wants to stay where other money is rather than trickling down to where it isn’t; how the rich always seem to get richer, taking advantage of the poor. And those who have the guts to challenge this, people like Amos or Jesus, get branded as malcontents or trouble-makers. As Amos says, those with power and wealth abhor the one who speaks the truth, and in times like these the prudent will keep their mouths shut; and we know what happened to Jesus when he upset the apple-cart of a society in which religious leaders worked hand-in-hand with the politicians to keep things profitable for the few at the expense of the many.

Even some with good intentions, like the rich young man in the Gospel, is disappointed when Jesus tells him what he needs to do for his own good, and the good of his soul — to say nothing of the good he could do for the poor. He could not have been the only rich person to go away sorrowful, wanting to follow Jesus but not able to do as he counseled: unable to break that magnetic attachment of wealth. The Gospel shows us how hard it is for wealth to trickle down — it wants to stay with the wealthy; and the wealthy want to stay with it!

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This is why greed, far from being good, as Mr. Gecko believed, is such a poisonous affliction. It’s an addiction that can never be satisfied — those who think having more and more is the point of life can never get enough to make that hunger stop. Because there always is more, isn’t there? It is like drinking salt-water when you’re thirsty — it will only make you thirstier, and in the end, it will kill you.

Greed is a thirst for the wrong thing, you see. No one really needs more money than it takes to live, to provide for those practical real realities of shelter and food and a modicum of comfort and leisure; and the money and the things left when they die, as indeed they must, is beyond their employment or enjoyment. While you live, your possessions and wealth can serve you and others, but the things you have but which you do not use serve no one — not even you. There is an old saying, “The second coat in your closet, the one you never wear, really belongs to someone else.” Hanging there in the closet it keeps no one warm, not even you. Yet, there it hangs.

Just as the financial markets moved further and further from reality, to focus on speculation itself as a thing to speculate about, so too the desire for wealth and possessions moves away from the good that wealth can do — to the wealth itself, and not to using it, but just to having it. Rather than a means to an end, it becomes an end in itself — a dead end.

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I mentioned politicians a moment ago and I’d like to end with not a politician, but with a First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln suffered much in life — she lost three of her four sons to early death, at the ages of four, twelve, and eighteen; and she suffered the horror of her husband being shot as he sat next to her in the theater, her hand in his. She was far from a perfect person, and was what used to be called “high-strung.”

One of her great failings was her unrealistic relationship with money. When her husband was elected President, she went wild; she had no sense of proportion, and began to spend his new-found salary lavishly refurnishing the White House like there was no tomorrow. When tomorrow came and Lincoln was assassinated, and then with the death of her young son, Tad, just a few years later, she fell into a cycle of madness; imagining she was lost to the world, doomed to live homeless, out on the streets.

One day she was in fact found wandering in the streets of Chicago. And it was discovered by those who took her in that all the while she bemoaned the lack of money, living in panicked fear of poverty, she had over $50,000 in bonds sewn into the lining of her dress — a huge fortune in those days. But it wasn’t even enough to keep her warm. She died a few years later, never able to enjoy any of that wealth.

Julie Harris as Mary Todd Lincoln, and your preacher, in his former life as an actor, portraying Tad Lincoln, who died shortly after his 18th birthday. Photo by Martha Swope.

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It is painfully easy to say, Well, she was a bit crazy, wasn’t she? But isn’t anyone who hoards more of the world’s goods than he or she needs to live — even to live comfortably — equally out of touch with reality? How many are like the rich young man, wanting to be free but unable to let go of the very thing that holds them down.

The disciples ask, Who then can be saved? And as Jesus answers, the implication seems to be that all can be saved from possession by wealth — but not through their own efforts, only through the power of God. We all need help detaching ourselves from the goods we accumulate, the things that seem to stick to us like an acrylic sweater fresh out of the dryer, and God has shown us the way to do so — to use the power of God that is within us, God working within us, to open our hands to give to those with less, to grow accustomed to letting go and not grasping, knowing our needs will be met a hundredfold.

And just as wealth seems to attract more wealth and drag us down, so too once we start the practice, the practiceof generosity will make us more generous; the practice of charity will make it easier and easier to open our hands, and let go of the weight that keeps us from following the one who can and will free us from all such bonds, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

4 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

No I haven't sold everything I have and given the money to the poor, more's the pity, and chances are I won't. Still, the two coats reminder resonated. I must look and see whether I gave the big coat away. The short coat I meant to give to the Occupiers, but they were removed.

The words to the rich young man are hard words for the followers of Jesus, and I can't shake the sense of sin and shame that stays with me because I own so much. I throw myself on the mercy of an all-loving and all-forgiving God and rest there in hope.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Mimi. Few if any of us live up to the highest standard. This is a hard teaching, no doubt about it. My hope is that the merciful Jesus knows -- as I know he does -- that the effort is what it is all about. Jesus loved the rich man before he asked him to take that difficult step, the step he couldn't take -- and I don't see any indication that Jesus stopped loving him, even as he told him he lacked something.

Grandmère Mimi said...

The chickens came home to roost to an astonishing degree, and the henhouse was full to overflowing. And sad to say, most of the chickens were dead ducks!

For the New Yorker's "Block that metaphor!"? Thanks for the laugh. I always enjoyed the feature, but I don't see it as often now in the magazine.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Mimi, those little "filler" bits at the ends of articles were always, next to the cartoons, my favorite thing in the New Yorker!