Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Sermon on the Economy / Current Economic Crisis

I preached on the economy on Sunday morning. Many people have commented on the sermon. It is posted here for all to see:

Luke 12:13-34
Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol
October 5, 2008
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

I have heard about “the Hoovers” since arriving at Mount Vernon Place over three years ago. Every year around budget time, I am told how we need to include “the Hoovers” in our annual operating budget. “The Hoovers” were mentioned often at Social Concerns Meetings. The Hoovers were a household or a “churchold” name around Mount Vernon Place. This congregation has been supporting “the Hoovers” for nearly twenty years. We have been part of the 10% of all congregations supporting missionaries for a long, long time.

But I never knew the first names, Jeff and Ellen, of the Hoovers until recently. I did not know exactly where they were serving in Africa until we started to prepare for their visit at Mount Vernon Place. I did not understand what the Hoovers did or what they now do until I met them on Wednesday night.

And I now cannot get their witness out of my mind.

Jeff and Ellen Hoover spoke to twenty-something of us who gathered in the chapel for pizza and conversation on Wednesday night. They arrived, and I recognized Ellen immediately as she walked into the door. She appeared exactly as she appears in the pictures of her newsletters – even the newsletters that are more than a decade old.

Jeff and Ellen opened their presentation with a slide show, pointing out the places where they are privileged to serve. They shared pictures of them going on a journey, telling us how a successful journey in the Congo is arriving – since the infrastructure is not exactly in place. They talked about how some places have electricity and some do not. They told us of the schools where they teach – how the students cram together and the computers are hard to rely on since the electricity is not always available. They told us stories of the Congo, and then they shared a bit of their background.

Jeff and Ellen both have PhDs from Yale University. They could have taught anywhere – taking their newly minted degrees to another Ivy League school where they could be tenured faculty with a job and a steady income for life. But they did not.

Instead, they took their degrees from Yale – their prestigious piece of paperwork that many people would yearn to have – to the Congo. They went to the Congo for an initial three years, believing that they had skills to teach and gifts to share. They would go and share themselves with the Congolese, training others to do what they know how to do, with the intention of returning home. But, 30 years later, Jeff and Ellen are still teaching and administering in the Congo. Thirty years later, they have no real plans to return to the United States anytime soon.

On Wednesday night, Jeff and Ellen shared how the role of a missionary is one of empowerment. A missionary never keeps what she has to herself but instead shares it with others. A missionary takes his skill to another place where the skill is needed. The person transfers his or her knowledge, teaching the people a skill they are lacking. The people are then empowered with the knowledge and the missionary returns home. The missionary receives little – the basic necessities of life – while the people receive what they need to sustain life. Missionaries give all that they have in order to see a community strengthened and sustained. In the economy of a missionary, it is all about the people – all about the community. A missionary frees him or herself of everything that he or she has in order to give all he or she has to others. And it is this freedom – this visible freedom – that is still with me following the Hoover’s presentation. I have not seen anyone so free – so able to take risks and enjoy life to the fullest – as I saw the Hoovers on Wednesday night.

It has been quite a week. Tuesday’s headline was “House Rejects Financial Rescue, Sending Stocks Plummeting.” Wednesday’s top of the fold read, “Most Voters Worry About Economy: Majority Consider Situation a Crisis.” Yesterday’s paper shares how a rescue bill was signed into law but the headline is not much brighter, “House Passes Plan By Wide Margin, but Stocks Keep Falling.” Things are not good on Main Street or Wall Street.

I have been tempted to change the sermon topic throughout the week. This sermon topic on the economy was chosen last summer. More than one year ago – I put down my thoughts on sermon series for 2008 in a paper that was due for my doctoral work in July of 2007. It was in June of last year that I was led to pencil in the economy as the sermon topic for this Sunday. And, I have been haunted by this action all week long. Are there any such coincidences? Who would have known that the situation would be this bleak? And in times like this, would it not make more sense to stick with the lectionary – to avoid the bleakness of our life situation and pretend that Jesus has nothing to say about the economy?

Most people – liberal and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans – believe that the United States is experiencing a meltdown of the economy because some people have taken too much. This week’s Newsweek magazine has an article titled “The Monster that Ate Wall Street.” Matthew Philips explains how the monster has been self-created – created by high-finance executives who believed that it was possible to loan billions upon billions of dollars to governments and corporations – dollars that could be protected even if there was a default. The credit defaults would keep being swapped, one after another. Bankers would continue to get richer while others would grow poorer. Nothing could stop them. Invisible money would keep things afloat.

The mortgage meltdown started because of invisible money, too. Individuals were given loans that were affordable when the loan documents were signed. People were told they had plenty of money – that they could afford homes with a large price tag even when the salary and bank account was not so large. The loans were affordable at first – but soon the rates adjusted. Buyers started to default. Bankers realized they had made bad decisions. The invisible money was now appearing to be quite visible when the payments stopped coming in. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have been taken over by the government – something many people thought would never happen.

People at the top wanted more. Those with power and influence demanded more power and influence – more loans, more investments, more money, more this and more that. And no matter how much there was it was never enough. And now that it really is not enough, people have demanded an intervention. Those who have much and those who have little have sought a bailout. Those with power and influence have been asked to come to the rescue – to come and set things straight with a $700 billion bailout.

A similar request is made in today’s scripture passage.

A man comes to Jesus with a request. A man comes to Jesus because Jesus has more power than anyone, and this man wants Jesus to intervene into his financial situation. The man wants Jesus to demand his brother to share the family inheritance – to divide it between the two of them. The brother who comes to Jesus wants an intervention. He wants Jesus to bail him out. Jesus does not exert his power over such trivial matters, however. Instead, Jesus teaches about what is really important.

Jesus responds with a parable about a man who is blessed with an amazing harvest. The man is blessed with a tremendous return on his planting. When the man sees all that he has, he concludes that life is all about him. He starts to think about everything that he should do.

I have no place to store my crops.
I will do this.
I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.
I will store my grain and my goods.
I will say to my soul – soul: you have enough. Relax, eat, drink, be merry.
It is all about me! It is all about me! Look at what I have done!

An executive gets one promotion after another until she finds her way at the top – in the corner, executive office. Her salary has increased and so have the stock options. She has more than she could possibly need or use. She did not ask for any of it – she worked hard but others have worked just as hard.

Look at all I have.
I will take my money and buy a bigger house.
I will increase my power with as many stock options as possible.
I will buy a vacation home and a Mercedes sports sedan.
I will shop until I drop.
It’s all about me! It’s all about me! Look at what I have done!

But with the blink of an eye it can all be gone. The barn can be blown down and the crops can rot. The stock market can drop 700 points in one day and the government can buy out the company, deflating the golden parachute that was to float in the air for a lifetime. Worse yet, life can end and one’s efforts to store up everything for another day can slip away with the night.

Life is never about what one person can acquire. Those who believe that the goal of life is to acquire more and more are downright fools according to today’s scripture passage. God calls the man with the barn full of stuff a fool!

Imagine what God might be calling people today – who have a lot more than a barn full of stuff…
Jesus wants those who follow him to put their trust in him – to trust that God, not our investments, is the source of our security. God – not our homes – is our comfort. God – not our stuff – is our livelihood. Our future is in the hands of God who never fails – not investors on Wall Street who may have made us rich last month only to take it all away this month.

I would venture to guess that I am in good company if I were to ask how many of you have worried recently about the housing market or the state of our economy. I would like very much for someone to bail my husband and I out of the home purchases we made in 2005. I would like very much for someone to tell us that we will be able to sell both of our one-bedroom condominiums soon so that we can have a home that is big enough to start a family. We all want some part of our finances to be fixed or some part of life to be repaired. But Jesus does not care about how big or how little our homes or our investments are. As long as we have enough for this day – then Jesus does not get involved. Jesus does not offer a financial bailout in today’s passage. What Jesus offers is a promise of peace and security for life. And, we all need to hear the words spoken by Jesus who told his disciples to not worry about life – about how life is more than food and clothing, about how we are to strive not for stuff but for the kingdom of God to come down and be embodied in our midst. Read Luke 12:32 – 24 again, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaving, where no thief or moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In the economy of Jesus, all are taken care of as long as all share what they have with others.

In the economy of God, there is just enough for every single person. There is always enough as long as people take their share – and not their share along with the share of ten or 100 more people.

In the economy of Jesus, God rains bread from heaven. If we try to store up any extra it will spoil, just as the manna in the wilderness was good only for one day.

In the economy of Jesus, the disciples take their possessions and sell them, distributing the proceeds to any who have needs, making sure that all are taken care of.

In the economy of Jesus, followers of him pray a prayer with the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” not our yearly bread or enough bread for a lifetime – but enough for today.

In the economy of Jesus, our treasure has nothing to do with Main Street or Wall Street but instead has everything to do with the Kingdom – the place where Jesus dwells and the poor have good news preached to them, the captives are released, the blind are given sight, and the oppressed go free.

If we have enough for this day, we are okay, Jesus says. We are not to look at how little we might have but instead we are to search our hearts to see if there might be too much for if we are rich in things and not rich towards God, then we are in trouble.

And so what does this mean for us and for this church? It is clear that if our possessions have a hold on us then we are in trouble. Throughout the scriptures, we are asked to give a tenth of all we have – to give back to God one dollar for every ten dollars we receive. And while this 10% can be a stretch – an act of faith – even it looks small in light of today’s passage as I think about my savings account or my 401K – how this money could provide the basic necessities of life – food and shelter – for others on this day. If we have too much, we not only can share but we must share what we have with those in need.

But what does this mean for this church? There are still many rooms that have never been used in this building. There are four showers downstairs where the water has never been turned on with the exception of the plumber who installed the pipes. We have more than enough space for the congregation that currently calls this place home. We have built a building for tomorrow – trusting that God is going to grow this congregation and that we will need all that we are building. We have made an investment in property that we might not need for ten or even twenty years. But what about today? If we read this passage faithfully, then God might be calling us to do more with this space – to stop protecting it for today, to stop worrying about the place getting too dirty or the carpet not lasting at least a decade.

The portion of today’s passage that tells me not to worry – I love this part. I want to read over and over again about how God will take care of us. But there is more to the passage and there is more to life. The rest of this passage haunts me – scares me – makes me want to run because Jesus is meddling with my business and the church’s business. Jesus is stopping me straight in my tracks and not allowing me to go any further.

It’s not about me. It’s about God.

It’s not about you. It’s about God.

It’s not about us. It’s about God.

2 comments:

Brian C. said...

Donna,

I really liked this sermon, and I'm imagining the context. I enjoyed your dual narration over the text and your life today. I'm going to steal some pieces for my own bit tomorrow... I especially like the almost chant-like summation at the end. Thanks for your faithfulness.

YankeeSouth said...

I am a Licensed Methodist Pastor and I happened to stumble on this site. Your sermon was an inspiration to me on how to address the economy. Thanks for the help.