Thank you Sam Lloyd and the whole Cathedral team, I feel very blessed to be back in this pulpit again.
I like to tell the story of my 10-year-old son Luke when he was only seven. He came up to Joy and I one day and said, “I am worried about Max and Jonah,” two of his pals on the little league baseball team that I coach, “I don’t think they believe in God or Jesus… I think they’re vegetarians.” So Joy and I had to take Luke out to Oregon where he would meet some Godly vegetarians and that seemed to help.
I want to suggest that there is great confusion in this country about what we mean by our faith, about religion and what that means.
Many are confused about religion these days. And I want to suggest this morning that the economic crisis we are in is actually a deeper crisis of values—and offers us, the people of God, a chance to clarify what we mean by faith.
As we meet for worship this morning, there is an overriding reality that impacts most everything we say and do. A severe economic crisis seems to get worse by the day and has plunged the nation into fear and vulnerability we haven’t known for a long time.
But with crisis, I want to suggest, there is also great opportunity. And as some have pointed out, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
Let’s call this sermon, “The Opportunity of Crisis.”
What I want to say to you today, in a nutshell, is that it’s high time to apply the gospel to this economic crisis. And that such a prophetic ministry is now central to the role of the church at this critical moment. Crisis gives you the opportunity to clarify your mission. So what are the opportunities here for the people of God?
The good news is that some clarity is already beginning to happen….but perhaps in some unlikely places.
Thursday night, you might have missed it, but there was an event, a happening, a shift that I hope, you might soon feel. Some likened it to the storming of the Bastille, crates of tea thrown into Boston harbor, a populist uprising. Some spoke of King Lear’s dark fool who spoke truth to power when all others were mute, others likened it a prophet in the wilderness, others finally breathed a sigh of relief as they heard plainly spoken… “the king has no clothes.”
I call it Sunday School with Jon Stewart. Thursday night, millions of Americans went to Sunday school, or more accurately, Sunday school came to them through Comedy Central. In the culmination of a week long “cable network feud,” comedian Jon Stewart had CNBC’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer, and what followed sounded like a mix between a confession and a good old values lessons.
Stewart asked Cramer about two markets in which we are all participating:
“One that has been sold to us as long term. Put your money in 401Ks. Put your money in pensions and just leave it there. Don’t worry about it. It’s all doing fine. Then, there’s this other market; this real market that is occurring in the back room. Where giant piles of money are going in and out and people are trading them and it’s transactional and it’s fast. But it’s dangerous, it’s ethically dubious, and it hurts that long term market. So what it feels like to us—and I’m talking purely as a layman—it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our hard earned money. And that it is a game that you know… That you know is going on. But you go on television as a financial network and pretend isn’t happening.”
And the comedian wasn’t being funny, he was angry.
“I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a f—ing game. When I watch that I get, I can’t tell you how angry it makes me, because it says to me, you all know. You all know what’s going on. You can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG and all this derivative market stuff that is this weird Wall Street side bet.”
Then a moral values dialogue ensued:
STEWART: But honest or not, in what world is a 35 to 1 leverage position sane?
CRAMER: The world that made you 30% year after year after year beginning from 1999 to 2007 and it became-
STEWART: But isn’t that part of the problem? Selling this idea that you don’t have to do anything. Any time you sell people the idea that, sit back and you’ll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don’t you always know that that’s going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work. That we’re workers and by selling this idea that of, “Hey man, I’ll teach you how to be rich.” How is that any different than an infomercial?
Franklin Roosevelt saw this market in the years of the Gilded Age before the Great Depression. He said in his first inaugural address:
“Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
Of course, I am simply commenting upon the gospel passage for today.
You see, Jesus also has a problem with the money changers.
Text: John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
A few points about context.
1. This passage is often misunderstood. Jesus’ indignation and anger was not fueled by the buying and selling of goods in the temple. (In other words, this passage is not an indictment against the church bake sale, and the Cathedral can keep its gift shop!). The passage is about greed, not commerce.
2. Most of the Passover worshipers were pilgrims traveling from distant countries. It would have been impossible for these travelers to bring livestock with them on their long journeys to Jerusalem. The merchants and money changers conveniently set-up shop in the temple’s outer court to provide these pilgrims with their Torah-mandated animal sacrifices. However, the worshippers were frequently cheated in this marketplace. Greedy money changers inflated the currency rate (only a certain type of coin could be used in the temple) and the merchants had a monopoly on the sacrifice market.
3. Interestingly, in his condemnation, Jesus specifically turns to the merchants who are selling doves. Doves were the least expensive sacrifice that was permitted to be offered in the temple, and therefore, most frequently bought by the poor.
4. In a marketplace that is unjust and takes advantage of the poor and the stranger; the “subprime” is a spiritual and moral problem, not just an economic one. It’s worth our attention and even our indignation!
So do Christians have a responsibility in turning over the tables of an unjust market?
Furthermore, as the body of Christ, which is a new temple, do we need to provide an alternative economic witness and prophetic voice in the marketplace that reflects God’s justice?
In this morning’s Cathedral Forum, I suggested we were asking the wrong question, “When will this crisis be over?” And that the better and much more important question should be, “How will this crisis change us?” If it doesn’t change us and we somehow get back to business as usual and we start to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, all of the pain and suffering of this crisis will be in vain.
I said we have trusted in “the invisible hand” to make everything turn out all right and believed that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right and “the invisible hand” let go of some things, such as the common good. The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And the situation has spun out of control.
If we learn nothing from this crisis, then all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But if we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can be redemptive. If we can regain our moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.
So what are some of the moral lessons to be learned now?
First, relationships matter. The relationship between employer and employee has collapsed from one of mutual benefit to “whatever you can get away with.” It wasn’t so long ago that people knew their bankers and bankers knew the community they were in. Those relationships collapsed completely with the rise of mortgage-backed securities that make it virtually impossible to figure out who is tied to whom and how.
Second, “social sins” also matter. Gandhi talked about seven deadly social sins; we spoke of them this morning, here are two: Wealth without Work and Commerce without Morality.
When wealth comes to those who fail to add value to our economy, that “social sin” will soon find the sinners out. When we create a cultural habit of spending money we don’t have for things that we don’t need, a disaster isn’t far away. And history shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent collapse.
Finally, our own good is tied up in the common good.
I’d like to conclude with another story in the Gospels, that a lot of us learned in Sunday school about what you do in the midst of what was another kind of economic crisis. Jesus was out teaching far away from any town and a crowd was gathered of 5,000 men plus many more women and children. They were all there when the disciples realized there wasn’t any food for them. You might say the liquidity had frozen up in their food market and with everybody defaulting all at once, their CDS (credit default swaps) didn’t do them much good.
With all these thousands of people gathered… hungry and ready for a meal there was a little boy who came up and offered all that he had… five loaves and two fish.
When I hear this story I try to imagine the disciple’s reactions. They must have thought the boy’s offering a comical joke. They were despairing of the problem and wanted Jesus to send the people home. “This is too big for us.”
But God’s economy is not our economy. God’s reality is not our reality. Jesus took the small boy’s offering seriously.
He took the food and he blessed it. The disciples passed it out and there was more than enough. So much so that there were twelve baskets left over.
It’s a miracle!
Yes, but it was made possible by the little boy sharing his lunch, and not just keeping it for himself. You see, his sharing gave Jesus something to work with.
There is an important lesson here for us. In an economic crisis we all want to hunker down and hold on to our lunch. We all want to make sure that we keep what we have because we are afraid that if we let go even that will be taken away from us. But God’s economy teaches that when we share, things tend to multiply. And in God’s economy we learn that what we think we know about the world is not how the world has to be.
Why is the boy in the story even necessary? So Jesus would have something to work with. For God to act in this crisis, he may need something to work with—like the generosity and compassion of the people of God.
An extraordinary fact: Guess which year in American history records the highest percentage of giving—to the church and to the poor—of any year in inflation adjusted dollars. 1933!
Beneath the economic crisis is a moral crisis. If we do not address it, if we do not confront it, we will be doomed to repeat it. Our greatest leaders and even our best comedians speak about the moral danger of the economy we are in. One in which our vices are called virtues and villains are hailed as heroes because of the worship of the idol (as our Exodus passage warns us against today) that is an invisible hand and the false belief that hand in all its benevolence will turn our demons into angels.
Our tradition teaches us very valuable things for an economic crisis:
- We know that suffering can be redemptive.
- That sacrifice, voluntary and involuntary, can build character.
- That when confronted with the profanity of injustice we are empowered to flip over the tables of the money changers.
- That as people of faith our hearts and our minds are not just moved by supply and demand but by death and resurrection, by faith and by hope, by love and by power.
And we know that in God’s economy, when we share our lunch, there is always more than enough because in God’s economy things tend to multiply.