This sermon was delivered on August 4, 2013 at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road, Cincinnati.
A study was reported this week that 30 percent of mothers have struggled to purchase diapers for their children. That’s one-third of the mothers in our country. Instead, she will sometimes reuse a diaper, causing health and developmental issues for the child and extra stresses upon herself. If a woman makes minimum wage, she’s spending six percent of her pay on diapers alone.
Some may suggest cloth diapers. But many of these women don’t have washers and driers in their household. Many have to travel to laundromats to wash their clothes. Travel is time-consuming and costly.
If this mom is on minimum wage, she would need to work about 87-88 hours per week in order to live. Many people who work hard on minimum wage still need government assistance.
We all hope in the American dream – that ambitious people will climb from poverty to money. Unfortunately, this is becoming more rare. Through personal experience, I see how people with money socialize very little with people in poverty. Imagine a black tie event, or a golf fundraiser. Each entry is $1000 dollars. At this event, wealthy people network with other wealthy people giving them more opportunities to make more money, leaving middle class folks like most of us or people in poverty to rarely associate with people of power.
Sure, some believe that people need the incentive to make more money, something that will drive them to be ambitious. I believe that seeing a CEO making ten times as much money would make people be more ambitious. Twenty five times as much money would drive people. Do CEOs need to make a full 273 times the amount of the average worker? In the booming 60’s, the average CEO made 20 times that of the average worker. Twenty times seems relatively fair – enough that would drive people to work for more. But before the recession hit, the ratio for CEO to average worker pay was over 350 times to one. The person at the top of the pyramid was so heavy with wealth that the rest of the pyramid crashed.
And no matter how much someone makes, whether it’s the CEO or the entry level employee, there is never enough money in each of our lives. Rich people are afraid they won’t have enough with billions of dollars, just like those in poverty also don’t feel like they have enough, except that the person in poverty struggles each day to keep their head above water.
This isn’t to discourage the average worker from negotiating more from his or her workplace. Everyone deserves to be paid fairly. But at what point does the plentitude need to begin to drip a little more from the people in the top tier of workplaces and society to those at the bottom of the pay rungs? When are they holding back their extreme abundance when the rest of our society struggles?
Jesus knew how to tell a good story to help the rest of us humans see the world in a very different light. A good portion of what Jesus spoke about in many of his sayings and parables happen to be about loving our neighbor and taking care of the poor.
Extravagant profit seems to be the bottom line when it comes to the rich man in the parable. Not only does he have enough, he uses his resources to pay for barns to be torn down and new ones to be built just so he can continue to hoard. This is more than he could ever to expect to use himself, and affluence actually leads him to being lazier in his life. Remember the saying “the one who dies with the most toys win?” Well, the man in the parable believed this, except that God calls him out on being a fool. For God, being rich means extravagantly loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
The lectionary text stops at verse 21 after the parable, but I thought the context of the larger chapter is important to this story and expanded today’s reading. Jesus then tells his disciples “Do not worry about your life.” He’s telling them to drop this fear of scarcity of material goods. There are so many other issues on which to spend our energy.
But maybe we worry because we know we’re living under a system that not everyone is treated fairly and a serious lack of balance. Maybe we act out of fear that we’ll be living in poverty at some point as well.
Of course, there are many CEOs, business owners, corporations and small businesses with much integrity – who are trying to use their wealth and power to build our societies and humanity. Unfortunately, we hear much more about corporate greed which is still a huge part of our picture. In his book The Powers that Be, theologian Walter Wink writes the following:
“According to eighteenth century philosopher of capitalism Adam Smith, businesses exist to serve the general welfare. Profit is the means, not the end. It is the reward a business receives for serving the general welfare. When a business fails to serve the general welfare, Smith insisted, it forfeits its rights to exist. It is part of the church’s task to remind corporations and businesses that profit is not the ‘bottom line,’ that as creatures of God they have as their divine vocation the achievement of human well-being (Eph 3:10). They do not exist for themselves. They were bought with a price (Col. 1:20). They belong to the God who ordains sufficiency for all.”
Taking care of those in all parts of our society is part of our job as people of God and has been part of humanity’s call since the Old Testament. Jeremiah 29:7 says “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” When we can keep in mind the success of the whole and of the many, not just the few, our foundation is stronger, and our communities can succeed greater.
For the record, I don’t have a problem with capitalism as long as everyone has a chance to succeed. But even the best systems, theories and programs have faults. Like Walter Wink says, “the Powers are good, the Powers are fallen, the Powers need to be redeemed.” Our system of economics is sorely missing something right now, especially because people who work still need government assistance. There is seriously something out of balance. And as a follower of Jesus the Christ and as someone called to be both pastoral and prophetic, I would be failing my call if I didn’t preach on ways to make sure “the least of these” are taken care of.
Like the goods in the barns from today’s parable, the plenitude is not flowing from the rich. When 30 percent of mothers can’t afford diapers, and people working for minimum wage need to work over 80 hours of week to live when people are making 270 times that amount, it is a conversation that we, as Christians, need to have. And I know that there are a wide range of perspectives on this issue in this congregation. Where do we start the conversation? Where do we start reflecting?
Many of us live in this mindset of scarcity. This mentality makes us stay silent and frightened. And today’s text is telling us to go against this nature of worry-only-about-our-selves, to step outside of the scarcity mindset.
When we make decisions about our lives, do we listen for God or do we look at the amount in our bank accounts? Do we hold back in fear of scarcity or do we spring forward in love and abundance?
Let’s move it another step further – What is God calling us to do as a congregation? Are we using the earplugs of fear to mute the call of God? Do we follow God’s call with trust that God will provide time, talent and treasure?
Where do we have abundance? Maybe we don’t have a large congregation, but God has blessed us with a building. How is God calling us to use this building to build God’s kingdom?
Too often, we support systems that promote the rich man in Jesus’ parable. Have we let companies with unfair labor practices know that they are hurting the entire of humanity? Do we let our pocketbooks decide who has the better labor practice – by spending our money at local businesses that take care of their employees? If we don’t use our voices, are we are no better off than the rich man in Jesus’ parable?
As we go forward wondering what God’s visions for our world, our community and our church are, we must be willing to stand in faith. We must be willing to risk, to allow our treasures to be used to grow, to allow our building to be used for the good of our community. We must be willing to stand against systems where hard working people can’t afford diapers, toiletries, shelter and food. For when we advocate for the well-being of all, we will find our well-being.