“Imagine Economic Justice”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 11, 2009
University Baptist Church
As I think about today’s scripture, I see a picture of myself. I find that I spend a lot of time wondering and planning for things financial. I’m the bookkeeper and bill payer and designated worrier in our house. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find out the best way to make the family budget work in the short term and the long term. I guess it’s part and parcel to having grown up in a family that was poorer than most of my peers. It was and is hard to make ends meet for some folks. So I strategize how to make the payments and how to also make plans for college and the unlikely event of having to get another car when the last one gets wrecked. Luckily Kim and I are in relatively secure jobs. I’m always happy that my keys still work when I return from out of town. We delight in the fact that we can give back to our community our time, talent and treasure. This past Christmas we decided to give our growing nieces and nephews donations in their name to the Heifer Project. This project gives families in developing countries animals that can help them attain a sustainable living situation. So we gave a hive of bees, a flock of chickens, some ducks and a goat or two in the names of our relatives. We figured that gifts such as these in these tough times better fit our values than giving them some little item that they didn’t need and would soon forget.
I admit that I spend probably much too much time being anxious. When I got up this morning long before sunrise to see what the paper said about the latest financial or political crisis, I was met with a large deer standing in our driveway munching on the shrubbery. I thought of today’s scripture, “consider the lilies” as I considered the deer. As far as I know the deer is not anxious, lacking the prefrontal cortex for such things. But God provided green shrubs for her to eat even in the cold of winter. Maybe God has a way out of this mess if we look closely enough. Now that winter is upon us, and the trees have lost their leaves, our family is recognizing a forgotten ecosystem as we look out at the ever-present deer in the field behind our house. We see squirrels, bunnies, hawks and even a family of foxes. And we marvel at the surprising order of things. So I think about these things as I contemplate political and economic realities. I remember beauty and serenity which makes it possible to contemplate a larger truth.
The larger truth is that God loves all of us and wants the best for all of us. And when we recognize that we are all part of the same ecosystem, then we seek to have just relationships with all. Economic justice is a piece of the larger whole.
Justice is all about priorities. What do we think is most important? Maybe that’s where we spend most of our resources. If it’s not, then maybe there’s something wrong with our collective picture.
What do we see as the priorities in society?
It would seem that a reasonably responsible set of priorities would include safety, education, health and security. But we are really over and under spending in all of these areas. We spend more on military in this country than all the rest of the countries of the world combined. And yet we still don’t feel safe. So we spend more.
We have plans to invest in early childhood education if it makes it past the budget axe. Early Childhood education saves money in the long run and makes people ready for school. It’s the best long-term investment we can make. And yet folks crow about how we spend too much on education.
We have created a costly new governmental bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security. While it was created to streamline operations and communication between agencies, it has not appeared to do its job when it came to things like Katrina.
Finally, we have a health care crisis that is out of control and while folks continue to worry about socialized medicine if we adopt a single-payer health care system like Canada, we have people in this very congregation who cannot afford health insurance and even those who do cannot afford the medicines they need to stay healthy.
And now the word is that we are in the worst recession since the 1930’s and have the highest sustained unemployment since the 1940’s. We wonder when the next shoe will drop or be thrown as the case may be.
So we wonder about our future. We wonder what all of this get ahead and secure your own livelihood and trust the stock market mentality has gotten us. It has begotten anxiety and fear. It has not brought us salvation.
We find ourselves anxious over the state of the economy and our own personal and collective financial stability.
We find ourselves anxious over the warfare in Gaza.
We find ourselves anxious over the prospect of the new leadership in Washington.
We find ourselves anxious over the multiple unknowns of the future, but especially the grim outlook for jobs and the economy.
Last summer we were extremely anxious about energy prices. I’m glad the prices have become more reasonable lately. But anxiety made us change our behavior, which is a good thing. We are using less fossil fuels than we used to and we’re trying to be a lot more energy conservative.
Consider the lilies. Consider the deer. Consider all of the people. And remember that there is a larger plan designed by God at work here.
Here’s an interesting thing about the Bible. It speaks plenty about taking care of the community. It talks plenty about caring for the outcast and the stranger and the sojourner and the hungry, the poor and the lonely. It is a book of liberation to and for the poor, thinking that people inspired by the Bible would imagine economic justice for everyone as a direct result of their faith.
And yet, we have a popular form of Christianity that says that it is all about your own personal salvation. It’s about your relationship with God and nothing else matters. It’s about how we can get our get out of hell free card if we say just the right words. And popular Christianity has not by and large embraced economic justice.
That’s not entirely true. We got a good primer from the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition last Sunday. We saw how the poorest pay the highest percentage of their incomes on taxes and the richest pay some of the least. This is a regressive state that likes to think its progressive. Many of us are going to the state capital on February 3 to advocate for a tax policy that promotes economic justice. We are doing this because of our faith.
Journey with me briefly down Christian theology lane and let me show you how economic justice can be forgotten by well-meaning people of faith.
You see, there are plenty of people within Christendom who take the millennial destruction outlined in the last few chapters of Revelation very seriously. Chief among these are a group of people called the pre millennial dispensationalists. Try to say that one three times fast.
Their basic belief is that the world is going to get progressively worse. Wars and rumors of wars will happen until it culminates in the great tribulation. But before this happens, the faithful Christians will be raptured (taken up into the sky with Christ) so that they don’t have to endure the tribulation. The rapture is based upon on a literal reading of one verse in the fourth chapter of II Thessalonians. Am I jogging any freaky childhood church memories?
This is the line of thinking espoused by John Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Dwight L. Moody, Pat Robertson, James Robison, Time LaHaye, Hal Lindsay, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and millions of others across the world. It is very popular. There is no gray area. You are either saved or you are not. And since the world is spiraling down, social reforms are kinda like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For the extremists, social justice programs are a waste of time because it makes you lose your focus upon your own personal salvation. If you’re saved, you’ll be raptured, end of story.
This is in stark contrast to those who believe that the world is evolving to a better place; that humanity has the capacity to feed all its people; has the resources to find new forms of energy that do not damage the environment; has the ability and wisdom to protect the environment so that our children’s children will have a place to live and thrive; has the capacity to find new ways to put away violence and live reconciliation.
That Jesus calls us into right relationships with all others and is very concerned with this world. This is the belief of the likes of St. Augustine, Menno Simons, Walter Rauschenbush, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and a great number of the Liberation Theologians. It was also the belief of Karl Marx and the Star Trek series. We can evolve beyond our propensity for self-destruction and live in right relationship one with another. These people rely on the ethical writings of the prophets and Jesus in the Gospels.
Looking at the world from the perspectives of the Premillennialists and the others, you have two very different tactics of survival. To be perhaps overly simplistic, the Premillennialists say that the only thing that matters is your own personal salvation. The others emphasize how we get along with one another as a sign of our salvation: how we bear the fruits of our faith in our life’s work.
But the premillennialist belief is the one that pervades our world. If you don’t believe me, think of the supposed reality based show Survivor. You remember the motto, don’t you? We all know the strategy, “outplay, outwit, outlast.” Which is a lot like, “out-cheat, out-lie, out-betray.” It was a drama played to supposedly secret cameras. It was reality according to the producers who left plenty of staged reality on the cutting room floor. Survivor is a premillennialist show. It assumes the worst about humanity. It assumes that humanity is going on a downward spiral. It assumes that we will all be betrayed in the end and all that really matters ultimately is your own individual survival. It’s kill or be killed. It’s me first. It’s my salvation and to hell with my community. In fact, community is only a convenient way to get what I want, my own cool million, a metaphor for salvation aka survival. You do your community thing trying to help each other out, but in the end, those same people that you helped are obligated to stab you in the back. There is a veneer of civility, but when the comforts are pulled away, we will act like animals in a fight for survival. It’s how the system works. This is the real world according to part of Hollywood.
Today’s Scripture gives us a real-life plan for survival. It says don’t be anxious about your life. It says don’t worry about who is out to get you. What you need to worry about is that you are doing God’s work. If you do God’s work, people will be out to get you. We know this as our congregation has felt betrayed by the very churchly institutions which we love, because we choose to follow God as we experience God in a community made up of outcasts. But God says to us when we enter into this kind of ministry, “Don’t be anxious about your life. Remember the lillies, remember the ravens, remember your work. Seek ye first the “kindom” (kin-dom as in community as opposed to kingdom which implies more of a hierarchy) of God, then all these things will be yours as well.”
God goes on to say, don’t worry about your possessions, be they the cool million at the end of Survivor or your roller-coaster portfolio. The scripture says, give to what you believe in, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart. It’s another way of saying, seek ye first the kin-dom of God. And you will have a clear vision for yourself. When you do that you not only survive, you thrive in unimaginable ways.
Economic Justice is what people imagine when they are living in community. It’s about taking care of each other. It’s about making sure that everyone is valued, welcomed and affirmed. It means taking care of the least of these.
I have found myself to be an even bigger fan of the Gopher men’s Basketball team for some reason this year. If you watch one of their games, like the one this afternoon, for instance, you’ll see a team effort. One or two hotshot players don’t win championships. Teamwork is what does it. You never know who will get the most playing time by looking at the starting lineup. I love watching opposing teams scramble when the coach emerges from a timeout with five fresh players or a complete defensive change—man-to-man, full court press, half court, zone. It keeps people on their toes. But it also requires the team to be working in sync and able to shift, modify and change tactics if something isn’t working.
Sometimes I wish we had the acuity and depth of a Gopher’s team when addressing the economic challenges in our world. But I think we our city, state and country have incredible depth. And the folks that have been riding the bench for eight years are finally going to get some playing time. It’s time to see what this newly recruited class can do. We know that economic justice is a hallmark of the hype of this new team.
You know, we as a church are folks who try to embody the justice that Jesus calls us to live. We just got our church financial statement of giving thanks to Nancy Myers. I’m proud to say that our priorities are in line. Of the over $83,000 that UBC has received in pledges and offerings since July, over $17,000 has been designated to Missions. That’s a double tithe. Twenty percent. That has helped out our sister church in Nicaragua incredibly, has beefed up the Fellowship fund so we can help out people in crisis. It has provided help to refugees and has supported our monthly offerings to missions such as the local justice organizations lifted up in Diane’s Ehr’s words this morning. When we pull together, we can do amazing things. We have already done some and we have some more on the way.
The scripture for today says that we are to do something counter-intuitive. We are to be careful hoarding our resources, for we do not know the hour that we are to account for our life’s work. Rather, we are to use our resources to imagine something beyond ourselves. Imagine imagining economic justice.
Imagine also that we are part of a bigger world, a bigger plan and that we have a brighter future. May we remember the scripture, reduce our anxiety and get about the work of building a community that inspires people and is faithful to God. That’s a winning strategy.