Of Falls, Bungalows, Castles, and Fawns

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska May 12, 2013 following a trip to Cambria, CA that began with Kay breaking her ankle on the way down the stairs as we were leaving for the airport. The rest is story of William Randolph Hearst desire for a bungalow that ended up as a castle, and an encounter with Mr. Excellent. The fawn story never made it into the sermon because of a forgetful preacher.

The story of the fawn is this. The morning Kay and I were preparing to leave Cambria for the trip home, I noticed a deer in the backyard pacing. There was a fawn lying on the lawn. Examining the fawn, it appeared to be alive, but was not moving, injured perhaps. The next time I looked, its eyes were closed. After examining it, I called the owner of the home we had rented to suggest that she call animal rescue. I thought there was a dead fawn in her back yard.

When we arrived home in Minnesota there was a voicemail that Animal Rescue had come and taken away the fawn only to realize that it was very much alive. It had just been born that morning. Point of the story for a Mother’s Day sermon: God is like that mother, staying nearby waiting for her newborn baby to get up.

God of the Profits or God of the Prophets?

October 14, 2012 at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska

Text: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15, 18-24

This morning I ask you which of the gods we will bow down and serve: the god of the profits, the organizing principle for those who were at ease in prophet Amos’ time, or the God of the Prophets who thundered against excessive profits in the marketplace?

Some will say that’s too simple.

Amos didn’t think so. Isaiah didn’t think so. Micah didn’t think so. Jeremiah didn’t think so. Jesus didn’t think so. Mohandas Gandhi didn’t think so.  We’ve heard from Amos and from Jesus.  Here’s what Gandhi called the Seven Deadly Sins of Society. The first sin on Gandhi’s list is

  • “Wealth without Work,” and the last is
  • “Worship without Sacrifice.”

Less than one month before we go to the polls to cast our votes for candidates for public office, I put before you from this pulpit the question of which God you will serve.

Will you commit yourself, or re-commit yourself, to the God of the biblical prophets, or will you line up your life and your values behind the god who thinks there’s no problem with wealth without work, worship without sacrifice?

I have never been more troubled in my life than I am today. It’s not because belong to a political party. It’s not that I want my team to win and the other team to lose. It’s because I believe in the God of the Prophets. I wake up every morning to scripture. And what do the scriptures say?

There were two sets of scripture that informed Jesus’ life. The Torah (also referred to as “The Law”) and the Hebrew prophets. “All the Law and the prophets are summed up in this: You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus put the Voice of the prophets in the center of Jewish faith and life. Often he sounds like Amos.

We celebrate the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain. We read in Luke’s Gospel:

“He lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said,

  • ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
  • ‘Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
  • ’Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

And our hearts rejoice. Because some of us, like Jesus’ first disciples, live in poverty; some of us know what it is to be hungry. Some of us are weeping now, wondering when we will laugh again.

Jesus consoles us. And these words of consolation are lifted up in the churches, as they should be.

But you can’t stop reading there if you want to follow Jesus. For in the very next lines of Jesus’ Sermon to his disciples, he echoes the thundering voice of the prophet Amos and his Woes:

  • “’But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
  • “’Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
  • “’Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.’”?

Jesus is calling it like it is. He is describing the revolution of economics, political power, and redistribution of wealth that is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is an economy – God’s economy. The economy preached by the biblical prophets and Jesus. The world of our best dreams where no stomach is empty, no one goes hungry; no one goes without health care. No one lives on the street under the viaduct, or in a car. No longer will those who have laugh at or pass by those who don’t.

The message of Jesus does console. It comforts the afflicted. But it also afflicts the comfortable. It causes trouble. It makes waves. It speaks the truth. It cuts through the lies that keep the privileged privileged.  It calls us to take responsibility in the here and now – to implement in the most practical ways the summary of the Law and Prophets. The over-riding question for the Christian is HOW to love my neighbor as myself? How to live now in the economy of God as the protest of hope and love within the economy of greed, disparity. How to live NOW as those whose worship DOES mean sacrifice.

A businessman notorious for his ruthless pursuit of profits once announced to Mark Twain that before he died, he meant to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “I will climb Mount Sinai,” said the ruthless profiteer, “and I will read the Ten Commandments out loud from the top of Mount Sinai.”

“I have a better idea,” said Twain, with a twinkle in his eye. “You don’t have to go to the Holy Land. You could stay home in Boston and keep the commandments.”

Earlier in his life, Samuel Clemens (who became known as Mark Twin) had been a young reporter in Virginia City.  He was walking along the street one day with a cigar box under his arm when a wealthy lady acquaintance said to him scornfully, “You promised me that you would give up smoking.”

“Madam,” he said, “this box does not contain cigars. I’m just moving.

Today we are asked to make a decision of stewardship. In three weeks we will make other decisions in the voting booth. As we consider these decisions, remember Amos yourself which God of the Prophets/Profits your decisions will honor. Will your action bear witness to the economy of greed and extravagance, the world of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins?

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice

Or will your decisions proclaim with Jesus the different Kingdom for which every heart longs to celebrate?

In conclusion, a writer named Ted Kooser invites you to think of yourself as a Daddy Longlegs.  You know the Daddy Longlegs, those strange creatures with those tiny little brown bodies like a small brown pill, walking across the floor on those eight long legs.

“Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,

A life rides, sealed in a small brown pill

That skims along over the basement floor

Wrapped up in a single obsession.

Eight legs reach out like the master ribs

Of a web in which some thought is caught

Dead center in its own small world,

A thought so far from the touch of things

That we can only guess at it.

If mine, it would be the secret dream

Of walking alone across the floor of my life

With an easy grace, and love enough

To live on at the center of myself.

You don’t have to go to the Holy Land to read the commandments from Mt. Sinai. Walking on your eight long legs across the floor of your life, you can walk with an easy grace, and with love enough to live on at the center of yourself…You can make love real today right here in Minnesota.

Redistribution of Wealth in America

Mitt Romney’s haughty remark insulting the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes is in the news. The issue of wealth distribution is philosophical and moral.  Isn’t it time folks concerned about the redistribution of wealth to the top stop being bullied and take back the language?. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) published this piece in 2010.

“Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”

by Gordon C. Stewart

December 14, 2010

Those who own the language rule the world. Words can ignite the spark of hope; they can also light the fires of fear.

Take, for instance, the phrases “redistribution of wealth” and “class warfare.”  The visceral response in the American psyche is fear — fear of communism.  And those who cry the loudest are those who have already waged class warfare, albeit quietly.

Wealth in America already has been redistributed.  The only question is whether to let that redistribution continue, or to “re-redistribute” the upward distribution that has already taken place.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a rare voice of clarity.  “Mr. President,” he said in last week’s Senate debate on extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, “in the year 2007, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made twenty-three and a half percent of all income … more than the entire bottom 50 percent.” Polifact.com checked Sanders’ claims and rated them “true.”

Redistribution of wealth has already happened in America, but no one calls it that. It has been in the making for decades. How and why did it happen? How did the 99 percent allow it to happen?

It was a quiet class war that appealed to the middle class belief that one day we, too, could be rich.  It was a war of words that sparked the fear that a far-off dream would be taken away.  It was a class war in which no one fought back. It was waged and won not by force of arms  but by the use of code words  like “redistribution of wealth” that hinted a sinister communist or socialist agenda. The result was the slow decimation of the progressive tax structure that once ensured the nation’s fiscal health and that sought some measure of fairness and well-being for all people in America.

One of Minneapolis’ wealthiest people invites me to lunch at her club. The club itself is a place of power and privilege, but I have learned to expect the unexpected there. My host has a conscience. She does great things with her accumulated wealth, but she is clearly troubled today. She wants to talk with her pastor about the drift of things in our state and across America, about her income taxes, and about her faith.

“It’s not right,” she says. “I should be paying more. I’m not alone in feeling that way.  More should be expected from those who have so much. We’re not carrying our fair share of the burden.  I want to pay a higher rate. I don’t need a tax break!”

Like others who have signed on with Wealth for the Common Good and Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, she knows that she did not produce her wealth. Middle class and lower class wage earners did.

The 2008 election offered hope that finally the people of America had awakened to the redistribution of wealth and power. In 2010 that hope is all but gone, held hostage by a Congress and a president who claim that, for the sake of extending middle class tax cuts and unemployment insurance for the unemployed, they must also continue the tax breaks for the wealthy, the growing deficit notwithstanding. The redistribution of the redistribution cannot garner the votes to pass in Congress.

The Democratic Party went down to resounding defeat in the 2010 election in no small part because it had lost its vision and courage. It lost because it rocked back on its heels at the charge that health care and financial reforms were acts of “class warfare” and “redistribution of wealth.” It lost the war of words. No one fought back to reframe the discussion until Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist senator, spoke the truth of the terrible, growing disparity of wealth in America. He dared to speak truth: The question before the Congress is not whether wealth will be redistributed. The only question is how. Will the current redistribution continue? Or will there be a re-redistribution?

Words matter. Language matters. Ideas matter.  So long as the American people remain easily manipulated by code words and slogans that distort reality like a funhouse mirror, and so long as elected officials and candidates recoil defensively instead of leading, the re-redistribution won’t stand a chance. It will be stillborn. The war of words will continue to be lost. Those who own the language run the world.

Is there a preacher in the White House who will finally dare to use his “bully pulpit” to put the issue squarely before the American people?  If the word were to come from the Oval Office that the real crossroads is not a redistribution of wealth but the re-distribution of the redistribution that has already taken place, would it reignite the spark of hope in the American soul?

The facts are already there.  What we need is a word from the bully pulpit.

Plato on Wealth and Poverty

“The form of law which I propose would be as follows: In a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues—not faction, but rather distraction—there should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty nor, again, excessive wealth, for both are productive of great evil . . . Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.”

Sound like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)? Karl Marx maybe? Bill Maher?

It’s not. It was , Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.) and “father of Western philosophy” who said it.
But it could have been Chuck Collins, grandson of Oscar Meyer, co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good. On their website, watch Chuck speaking on wealth inequality. I met Chuck three years ago at the home of a wealthy couple in Minneapolis.
I chimed in on the discussion in December, 2010 with a guest commentary on MPR, “Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”, arguing that the redistribution had already taken place – from the middle to the top of the economic ladder in America.
Let me know what you think? Do you agree/disagree with Plato: “Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth”? Or with Chuck? Should the distribution of wealth (a ceiling and a floor) be on the table or off the table of a democratic republic? If economics is not on the table, what does democracy mean?