Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 Mark 10:17–27

Dear Friends: Gird yourselves! Because the sermon you are about to hear is all about wormwood. That’s right: wormwood. I am sure you have come to this beautiful Cathedral hardly expecting to hear a sermon about something that is neither very beautiful nor very sweet.

My own researches have revealed that wormwood is actually absinthium—and absinthium is a plant with a particularly bitter extract which some people, for some goofy reason, like to mix with wine.

This morning’s featured prophet, Amos, may, or may not, have known about all this from drinking such wine—although his little book drips with such frequent references to wine that he was perhaps a connoisseur if not a devotee of fine wines. And in fact, he dreamed of that great day when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.” (I could perhaps enjoy that myself if I were not a teetotaling Methodist!)

But Amos, as we have heard from this morning’s Scripture, made wormwood a main theme of his prophetic message: “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground!”

And who are you who turn justice to wormwood? You are—they are we are those who “trample on the poor”—who live lives of excess abundance, even while you/they/we gather in “solemn assemblies” for worship and rituals of sacrifice—but while so many others languish in poverty and hunger.

Wormwood, then, means bitterness. Not just bitter tastes—but bitter lives, the lives of persons exploited and victimized by people and forces far beyond their own control.

You may know that “Wormwood” is also the name of that devilish nephew of the character named Screwtape, the Senior Devil in C.S. Lewis’s classic of popular theology called The Screwtape Letters. (We’ll get back to Screwtape and his own Wormwood later.)

But the wormwood Amos is concerned about is the bitter predicament of people in his own time, the eighth century B.C., who were being trampled upon personally, face-to-face. The tramplers were literally robbing the poor, seizing their crops without paying for them, indulging in bribes, shoving aside beggars and other needy persons. And some of those tramplers wanted the world to believe they were very pious religious people.

Surely no worshiper in this Cathedral this morning is turning justice to wormwood by trampling upon the poor in this very personal, face-to-face way.

Rather, the trampling of the poor in which you and I and most of us Americans are involved has a more remote, detached, abstract reality. Our trampling has mostly to do with the mega-structures of our economy and the world economy and with policies concerning taxes and budgets and international trade and development. Those mega-structures and those policies, however, get powerful reinforcement from our own lifestyles and standards.

It is clear now—and has been clear for years, if not decades—that this richest country in the world has within our own borders the greatest economic inequalities of any industrial nation. That is, the greatest disparity between rich folks and poor folks—and inequalities that are growing wider because of tax policies and budget priorities.

Last July, our internal Revenue Service revealed that 400 “super-rich” Americans had an average annual income of $174 million each. And together the incomes of those 400 totaled $69 billion: an amount greater than the total income of the 166 million people in all the four African countries President Bush briefly visited in July. Moreover, those 400 Americans stand to gain $7 billion from the tax cuts recently legislated.

In fact, tax cutting in our Congress has become a runaway train that, unless stopped at some crossing of our general welfare, will favor the wealthiest 1% of our citizens with perhaps a trillion dollars in new tax breaks over the next decade.

In the process, the federal budget is failing to meet a vast range of human needs in health, welfare, education, and the environment, And more and more state and local governments are unable or unwilling to make up the difference, facing huge deficits—even as they, too, have boarded that runaway train of tax cuts. That, Friends, means wormwood for millions of Americans.

And there’s still more of this devilish mischief. The Senate Finance Committee has just passed on to the full Senate a bill that would indulge some U.S. corporations that have accumulated $400 billion of profits on their overseas investments—while deferring payment of any taxes at all—but now may be given a virtual tax holiday if those profits are brought back home.

Numbers, numbers! Such figures may seem out of place in a Sunday sermon. And, to be sure, all sides of any economic policy issue can play numbers-games.

But we do need to recall the wit of the comedian Dick Gregory, who once announced: “I have concluded, after the most thorough, comprehensive systematic economic analysis, that one of the principal characteristics of poverty is a lack of money.”

And we also need to remember the not-so-funny line that justice requires the ability to read statistics with compassion.

Compassion must not ignore the fact that 35 million Americans now, by even official numbers, are living in poverty—and these numbers are growing. One fourth of all our children are living below the poverty line. Friends, that is wormwood!

And; 45 million Americans are without any health insurance even as health care costs keep rising faster than any other category of basic family need. And that’s wormwood—bitterness—for those 15 million people—and trouble enough for the rest of us.

Nationwide, more than half of racial and ethnic minority children in our underfunded city schools do not reach even “basic achievement levels.” That is planting wormwood for generations to come.

Wormwood is even more active on the world stage. In recent times, that drama has been featured at great global gatherings of the representatives of rich and poor nations, meeting together in Washington, Seattle, Genoa, Monterey, Doha, Dubai, and Cancun. These are the gatherings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

Just last month, the World Trade Organization met down in Cancun, that splendid resort on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. That bitter conference broke up in failure and frustration because the U.S. and European governments, who constantly preach the gospel of “free trade,” actually continue to practice just the opposite: protectionist policies and lavish subsidies that close their markets to African and Latin American exports—thus compounding the poverty of those countries.

After the Cancun meeting, the former trade negotiator for the Reagan Administration, Clyde Prestowitz, said U.S. policies are “literally killing West Africans by our subsidies to U.S. cotton businesses that permit “dumping large amounts of cotton on world markets at far below their cost of production.” On a religious note, Prestowitz added, ominously: “Is it any wonder that extremist Islamic clerics preaching jihad against America are finding an increasingly warm reception in West Africa?” For cotton is basic to the livelihood of West Africans. And the Now York Times editorially lamented that the U.S. government at Cancun had abandoned “the high moral ground” in world trade policy. Wormwood, again!

A few days after Cancun, at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at Dubai, on the Persian Gulf—far away from the streets of Washington where the battles of the anti-globalization movements have so recently been fought—World Bank President James Wolfensohn spoke pointedly about this connection between power and poverty. He said: “Too few control too much, and too many have too little to hope for.” And the result is “too much suffering.” Wolfensohn contrasted the world’s total of only $56 billion for development aid to poor countries with more than $300 billion in subsidies to agribusiness and $600 billion for military spending. There just might be some wormwood there!

This country continues to rank 22nd among the 22 countries providing economic aid to poor countries. Yes, we’re in last place in proportion to our wealth and pro-ductivity. And that has been true even during the most prosperous years of the 1990s. U.S. aid to the world’s poor now amounts to less than one-tenth of one percent of our gross product.

Can we—can you—do anything about all this wormwood?

The mission and action agencies of most of our denom-inations—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox—have re-sources to help equip us for public witness on these issues. Ecumenical networks through the National Council of Churches and Bread for the World are especially focused on them.

But these are issues that need to be vigorously addressed in our political life, especially now as we are already being drawn into the campaigns of a national election year just a few weeks away.

Which brings us right back to Screwtape and Wormwood. Screwtape himself would not approve of your getting involved in politics over these basic issues of economic justice. That Senior Devil, Screwtape himself, made that very clear in his 23rd letter to his devilish nephews “My Dear Wormwood . . . . Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster [for or us].”

Dear Friends: I invite you today to resist the Devil’s temptations to avoid any political responsibility for the poor of this nation and the world.

That little book of Amos holds us in suspense between judgment and hope. In fact, that same chapter about turning justice to wormwood ends with the verse made so unforgettable in the preaching and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who invoked it again and again:

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

And then the ninth and last chapter of Amos ends with this promise:

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps…
and the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the kills shall flow with it. . .
and the bounty of the nation shall be restored,
and the people shall rebuild the ruined cities.”

Dear Friends: The Lord can surely use your compassion and your commitment to help make that time come true.

In the name of our loving Lord, who warned that very rich man, and all the rest of us, that our wealth and our possessions may keep us out of the Kingdom of God—and that the poorest among us now may become the richest in that same Kingdom. Some days some day! Even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.