march madness: “the madness of obscene profits and the loss of obscene prophets,” march 6, 2016

obscene profits

Responsive Call to Worship
We live too much with but the perception of justice—
the illusion of justice and the appearance of peace.
Do we justify the lack of true peace and real justice
with the comfort and ease of privilege?
If I don’t have to be bothered,
why should I be?
Did we get rid of prophets who cuss
in order to take for granted
conditions that would make a prophet cuss?
Do we allow profits to now determine the priorities
that prophets once did?
Oh, we do gather to tell the subversive stories—
to sing the songs of great surprise and inversion—
of the God who brings down the powerful
and lifts up the lowly—
fills the hungry with good things
and sends the rich away empty.
But God doesn’t care.
In truth, God doesn’t give a damn.
For God hates—God hates
stories just listened to that are not lived.
So how do we truly risk
the truth of who and how God is
in our day to day living?
How do we make the story of God flesh?

We decide, do we not?
We decide that that story—
that story of love and grace—
of justice and righteousness and humility—
we decide that story is fundamental.
And then we live as if it were—
ever asking, how to love
here—
now.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Micah 6:6-8
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Isaiah 1:11-17
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
I’m not a fan of gratuitous vulgarity.
Though I must confess, there are times a vulgarity seems—
most appropriate?—most satisfying?
It’s the indiscriminate, prolific, rote use of such language,
that I find so disappointing—
in young people, and less young people, and presidential candidates!—
such prolific repetition so sadly indicating an utter lack of creativity,
of profundity,
and of any true appreciation for the power of language—of words.

That said, some of you may have heard
of Tony Campelo once saying,
“I have three things I’d like to say today.
First, while you were sleeping last night,
30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.
Second, most of you don’t give a shit.
What’s worse is that you’re more upset
with the fact that I said shit
than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
He has a point.

The church has invested too much
in obscenity defined as words—
taking God’s name in vain as something spoken—
while blasphemies never spoken,
but made incarnate in the world around us
torment God,
and we say not a word—
not a word against such obscenities.
I fear the world knows us as those who get all bothered when you say shit,
but don’t care if you live in it.

So what is obscene?
In Jacobellis v. Ohio, a Supreme Court case specifically about pornography,
United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said,
“I’ll know it when I see it.”

Of course, that assumes we see what we look at, does it not?
And we all too often don’t.
We look at our systems and we see our own privilege,
and we look and see no further.

I wish I were wrong.
And I know there are people without much
who take advantage of the system—
though not as many as some would suggest.
Like the drug tests for welfare recipients
and the voting restrictions to prevent voter fraud,
such accusations tend to be distracting noise
to draw attention away from those for whom God particularly cares.

And there are many more, without much,
who work—who work hard—sometimes multiple jobs,
and yet still cannot afford a home—
still cannot afford health insurance—
still cannot afford to think of college or retirement.
There’s an obscenity to that.

We know someone with money faces and receives
from the justice system
a very different justice than someone without money.
That’s obscene.

If we keep adding to the military percentage of the national budget
while seeking to balance that budget on the backs of the poor,
not only is that obscene,
but it’s also God’s heart we break.

“Catholic scholars coined the phrase ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’
to describe a phenomenon they found throughout
both the Old and New Testaments:
God’s partiality toward the poor and the disadvantaged.”

This, while in 2014, the highest paid CEO I could identify
was David Zaslav, of Silver Spring, MD
and Discovery Communications, Inc.
who was paid $156,077,912 that one year.
I’m sorry. That’s obscene.

And it’s really not that I begrudge even great profit for hard work.
It’s the magnitude of the chasm between those
who make so much more than they need
and those many more who, as hard as they work,
can’t make ends meet.
And it’s not about the hard working and the lazy.
Nor is it about haves and have nots.
But about a culture that allows big bullies
to play keep-away with smaller children
and take pride in their “winning abilities.”
And it doesn’t have that much to do with David Zaslav.
He may be an incredible human being.
But as the people of God in this world of ours,
that much money can neither be justified
on the basis of skill or personality.
And that’s as true, to my mind,
for sports figures and the stars of the media.
What the market will support
is not what is right and just.

For me the social economic reality of such a chasm,
between those with too much and those with too little,
is a theological and ecclesial problem.
It does not please God.
It must not please the people of God.

And I don’t even begin to know how to think about big business—
about my impression that when unimaginable profit is within reach,
so is unimaginable sin—
against the environment,
against people,
against what is best in the long term,
against what is healthy and what is just.

And banks, too many of which contributed to our economic crash
but didn’t lose as most of us did,
as they continue to not provide us services
from which they derive profit,
but provide services to make their shareholders as much money as possible.
Agricultural business wants to define what organic food means
because organic’s become a selling point,
and they want to define organic
so it doesn’t mean organic.
There’s an industry “that is trying to undermine
cooking as an everyday practice.”
Insurance companies and for profit prisons
have lobbyists working to create and maintain
laws favorable to their profits.
The NRA speaks in the name of the people and the second amendment,
but seems more focused on the continued profit of the gun manufacturers,
and can there be any doubt the military industry
stokes fear to sell weapons and war?

Monsanto scares me,
and I barely know enough to know what I’m talking about.
They talk sustainability,
but create seeds (and patent them)
that require a certain kind of fertilizer (that they make)
that have led to the development of superweeds
that require even more spraying of pesticides.
And why won’t the FDA require labels on genetically modified foods?
Who thinks the FDA is really looking out for the consumer
instead of the companies making money?

Why on earth, with such focus on profits,
would anyone ever think that ethics matter—
that we matter?

The GNP—the Gross National Product
measures economic growth
in such a way as to value your paying someone to take care of your children
but not your taking care of your children yourself.
It tracks only things paid for.
The GPI, the Genuine Progress Indicator, uses the same accounting as the GNP,
but “subtract[s] for costs associated with pollution, for example.
And add[s] value … for the benefits associated with, for example,
volunteer work and caring for children at home
(both of which are ignored by the GNP)”
(Michael Schut, ed., Money & Faith: the search for enough
[New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008] 80).
Bill McKibbin notes, “Under the current system,
as many have pointed out … the most economically productive citizen
is a cancer patient who totals his car
on his way to meet with his divorce lawyer”
(Schut, 79).
The kingdom of Bhutan chose another measure:
they track their Gross National Happiness.
Different priorities.
Our GNP is too important to us.
It is indeed a gross, national priority.

“At a town meeting with management,
some five hundred Dow Jones employees,
including reporters for The Wall Street Journal,
complained bitterly about the company’s harsh cutbacks in 2002,
when scores of senior journalists were fired
while senior management and shareholders
‘didn’t suffer any pain,’ as one employee put it.
Dow Jones Chairman Peter Kann was taken aback
by the openness of their anger. ‘It’s not an egalitarian place,’
Kann explained. ‘No corporation is.’ Why not?
Kann seemed visibly flustered by the question.
‘That’s one of the dangers you face living in a capitalist society,’
he replied. The employees thought in hard times
the sacrifice should be shared by all.
Their boss was simply explaining the fundamentals of corporate organization”
(Schut, 111).

It’s an overwhelming reality.
We don’t know where to begin.
How do we even find out what’s true
amidst all that’s complicated
and so often so very convenient?

But I think I have assumed
it was once the case
(and I know that’s dangerous—
maybe it was never the case),
but I have assumed that we were once the priority
of business
and profit a byproduct.
Now, more and more, it seems
profit is the priority,
and we’re to just buy products.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman claims
“Hell is the state in which we are barred from receiving
what we truly need because of the value we give
to what we merely want.
It is a condition of ultimate deprivation, that is, poverty”
(quoted in Schut, 73).
That’s scary.

And theologian Mary Jo Leddy adds,
“We are in captivity because we have made a god
out of an economic system
and have worshipped it as if it were the only reality”
(quoted in Schut, 73).
That’s true.

And the consequences ripple out.
Haiti in 1986 “imported just 7000 tons or rice,
the main staple food of the country.
The vast majority was grown in Haiti.
In the late 1980s Haiti complied with free trade policies
advocated by the international lending agencies
and lifted tariffs on rice imports.
Cheaper rice immediately flooded in from the United States
where the rice industry is subsidized.
In fact the liberalization of Haiti’s market coincided
with the 1985 Farm Bill in the United States
which increased subsidies to the rice industry
so that 40% of U.S. rice growers’ profits
came from the government by 1987.
Haiti’s peasant farmers could not possibly compete.
By 1996 Haiti was importing 196,000 tons of foreign rice
at the cost of $100 million a year.
Haitian rice production became negligible.
Once the dependence on foreign rice was complete,
import prices began to rise, leaving Haiti’s population,
particularly the urban poor, completely at the whim
of rising world grain prices. And the prices continue to rise”
(Schut, 131).
That’s obscene.

Who’s calling us to priorities these days?
Profits.
Who’s questioning the obscenity of our status quo?—
of what we take for granted?—
of what we justify?
I don’t know.

I do know we are called to—
called to care—
called to speak out.
And called, maybe, to switch our accounts
from a national bank to a local one—or a credit union—
to support local business—
to buy fair trade—
to live as if it’s important how we live
because it is—
and because it’s not just about us!

So maybe you’ll remember—if nothing else!—
that Sunday in church the preacher said,
“We’re the ones who are supposed to give a shit—
about things that really matter—
about what’s truly important—
in the name of God not taken in vain.”

You’ve gotten an earful this morning!
It’s not my custom,
nor is it any kind of sign of things to come!
But today,
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer
(Psalm 19:14)—and to this community of faith,
on the way together in this place.”
Amen.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Amos 4:1-5
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fish-hooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
Come to Bethel—and transgress;
to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
bring a thank-offering of leavened bread,
and proclaim freewill-offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God.

Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Hymn
“Once to Every Soul and Nation” [EBENEZER]
lyrics by James Russell Lowell, adapted by John Ballenger

Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes on forever, between darkness and the light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we risk Truth’s bold, stark claim,
with no promise we will prosper, no guarantee we will know fame.
Then it is the brave one choosing while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of faithful witness, Christ, Your steadfast love we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
Each new hour brings time for choosing how to live God’s love today.
They must upward still and onward, who would keep on God’s own way.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the Truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be as weakness, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that weakness sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Stands our God within the shadow, keeping watch above God’s own.

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