Dear Lord, may we listen with our ears, hear with our hearts and be willing to carry out your mission. Amen.
In the passage from Mark that was read today, Jesus was teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. It was the first time his newly chosen disciples had heard Jesus teach, and they, along with everyone else present, were amazed with the authority – the clarity – of what Jesus said. He did not speak like a scribe, parroting the scriptures, but as one who understood their meaning in a new and deeper way.
Then suddenly this crazy man starts shouting
“Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are, you the Holy one of God.” (Mark 1:24)
Now here at Saint John’s we know what would happen if such a thing occurred. Ushers would scramble and get this demon-possessed crazy man out of here. We would all shift uncomfortably in our seats and roll our eyes at this poor crazy person who dares upset our solemn service.
But not Jesus, no indeed. He just said:
Be silent, and calm down!” (Mark 1:25)
And caused the demons to leave him.
To me there are several observations we can make about this event.
First of all, from the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus spoke new things, unlike anyone had heard before: about the Hebrew law, about how people should love and treat one another, about priorities and what’s important in life. And he spoke and taught as the Primary Source, not a mere commentator: He talked about unconditional love, about a classless and egalitarian society where all care for one another, an all-inclusive, all sharing world without master or slave, Christian or Jew, male or female, rich or poor (Galatians 3:28) – it was radical then, and is radical now!
Secondly, Jesus showed early on the amazing, unworldly, God-like power He had to heal the sick, make the blind to see, change water to wine, cast out mental illness – all actions, then and now, beyond this world. All bigger than any mortal.
Thirdly, this crazy man really ‘got’ it. Of all the observers in the synagogue, he realized Jesus was the Son of God come here to ‘destroy us’ – that is, to change us, transform us, and make us new.
So what has this to do with you and me today in the twenty-first century?
To answer that question, at least in part, I want to share some ideas and facts I learned this past weekend as I attended, via live streaming, the Trinity Institute from Trinity Wall Street in New York City. It was a two and a half day seminar entitled ‘Creating the Common Good’. In reality, it was an in-depth look at economic inequality in our country and in much of the so-called western world: the income gap between the upper 20% and the lowest 20%, which we euphemistically call the ‘poor’.
What is economic inequality?
It is the oppression placed on our global world that creates an environment in which some people suffer, do not have sufficient nutrition or even enough to eat, receive sub-standard or no education, are restricted from voting, receive inadequate or no healthcare, fall prey to drug pushers, pimps and traffickers; they are demeaned through white privilege and inhumanity based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or social status. People, who, no matter how hard they try, fall deeper and deeper into the pit of poverty, despair and oppression. And despite more and more wealth being created for some, this gap between the ultra-wealthy and the working poor grows wider and wider.
There are many reasons for this, but a significant one is that we have a crisis of leadership, both governmental and, often, ecclesiastical – everyone seems to be for sale to the highest bidder. Our leaders seem accountability to no one except those who fund them. There is no transparency as to where the money comes from or how the money is spent. Rules on the financial markets and banks have been deregulated so much that these institutions have now become ‘too big to fail’. And are the instruments of greed for a very few billionaires.
Such inequality results in destructive ideologies, encouraging comparisons between individuals, delusions of entitlement (at both ends of the social and economic spectrum), and a slow but sure move toward a totalitarian government in which those in power have no regard for the rest of us.
We hear from politicians and some clergy a myriad of proposed solutions to this inequality –blaming a certain sector of society, such as the last/lost/least, ‘the other party’, socialism, fascism or greed. Everyone wants to point the finger at someone else so they don’t have to take responsibility for their own complicity in our unequal, rigged system.
While about 1% of the US population now controls over 40% of the nation’s wealth, 30% of the working people in our country live at or below the poverty line of $15,000 a year. Added to this there is approximately $100 billion dollars a year stolen from workers by requiring additional work hours for which they are not paid. They cannot protest for fear of losing their jobs. Furthermore, it is expensive to be poor; many live in areas where there are no grocery stores or grocery stores cannot be reached without a car. Nutritious fresh foods are too expensive or not available. Low wage jobs are also physically tiring, leaving little time or energy for healthy food preparation, non-nutritious and fat-loaded fast food seems the only option. These same working poor have little interaction with children or for their own personal development. The homes they can afford are not well insulated or efficiently furnished. Energy bills are out the ceiling. There is a huge disparity in education: rich kids get taught in private schools and poor kids get tested in public schools. Eventually this endless struggle for survival grinds people down until they reach bottom.
Not only is their life more difficult because of our system, but we make life harder for the poor since they are most likely to suffer harassment from the government and police. Of the over 10 million misdemeanors in the country, over 75% of those last year were charged against poor people. Each misdemeanor carries a fine of $200-500 for such offenses as resting feet on the seat of buses or subways and sleeping on park benches. Parents are being fined when their child is truant. In 43 states, the poor are forced to pay for the Public Defender, who is supposed to be provided free if the person cannot afford an attorney (we have all heard the Miranda statement saying an attorney will be provided for free if the arrested cannot afford one). If the person cannot afford the fine, they are imprisoned and then charged room and board for the time they are in jail. If put on probation, 49 states charge for the ankle bracelet. Since 2008, many cities are using these arrests and fines as a supplement to their income, creating even more economic inequality.
It has become illegal in several cities simply to be homeless. If you are sleeping on a park bench you will not be arrested unless you are homeless. There are no laws in this nation that say cities/counties/states must provide services for the poor and homeless. Those existing nationally-supported programs such as SNAP (food stamps) are being cut at the federal level. Moreover, it now illegal in some cities to even feed the poor.
Perhaps worst of all, the church acquiesces to this inequality all too often. Churches create an atmosphere of shame and exploitation for the homeless, poor, people of color or LGBT youth and adults. Our churches are separate, isolated, and ‘comfortable’ in our safe buildings and rituals. We are concerned, in theory, about ‘those people’ – we contribute money but we do not know them, work with them, or share our lives with them. In many ways we place the poor and homeless outside of God; forgetting the mandate from Jesus to:
Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless (Matthew 25:35-46)
And we ALL are complicit in this economic inequality!
We deceive ourselves that as long as we are fine, that is all that matters. To quote my grandmother, ‘It all depends on whose ox is getting gored’. We forget that this escalating poverty and economic injustice is, in reality, a risk to our national security, to the very fabric of our way of life.
At the Trinity Institute conference, the renowned American philosopher, author and activities Dr. Cornel West, summed it up appropriately by saying:
“Indifference is more evil than evil itself”.
And we all participate in this indifference.
Again to quote West, indifference shows, really, a lack of love for our neighbors:
“If we don’t, as imperfect people, love our imperfect neighbors with our imperfect love, we are more evil than Hitler or Stalin.”
All injustice could be rescued by the love that Jesus commanded us to show one another in Matthew 12:31:
“Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than this”
So we say, “What can we do?”
We don’t seem to be able to influence the extremely rich or the local/state/federal legislators. The Supreme Court has made a ruling in Citizens United that now equates money to voice – none of us have the monetary resources to counter that interference in our democratic process.
“Hot Button” social issues are constantly used to muddy the atmosphere of our political discourse, so we never really deal with poverty and economic injustice.
Things we can, however, do:
We can acknowledge our own vulnerabilities,
We can acknowledge our own indifference to the mindless consumer culture and skewed economic structure that has fed this inequality for so long.
We can step out, take a risk and honestly speak for and stand in solidarity with the suffering.
We can admit we are complicit in the economic inequality in this global world.
We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are poor, jobless, marginalized, segregated.
We can stand together for justice and human rights for everyone.
We can practice unconditional love!
But this is impossible, we say;
Pope Francis gave us a wonderful direction:
“Start by doing the necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Here are some things we can do:
- Realize that poverty is not a lack, but a lack of distribution. What do you have in excess that you can give others? How will you work for a tax system that encourages those with much to help those with nothing?
- Seek justice. Learn to recognize where there is injustice and be brave enough to be a truth-teller.
- Work for an economy of sufficiency in which we acquire what we need, not everything we want and be willing to go from ‘good living’ to ‘living good’.
- Take a public stand for an ethical, and fair democratic government, caring for ALL people
- Have dialogue within the Episcopal Church and with other faith traditions to plan strategic actions to ameliorate this economic inequality
- Establish relationships with the marginalized. There are plenty of opportunities to get to know those who are not as fortunate as we are, who have been oppressed by the system. You don’t have to look very far to find someone. In my work with In The Garden, I have come to find the only difference between me and many of the folks living on the land is one bad decision or one unlucky break. We are not all as different as you might think.
- Stand and work for quality education for all, job training, living wages, and fair housing for all.
- Remember every day that our baptismal covenant with God sends us out into the world; get outside the church walls and do the work of Jesus, and encourage your fellow parishioners, and your clergy to do the same.
Like the demon-possessed man at Capernaum, we must recognize who Jesus was and is and passionately work to bring his Kingdom on earth, Rather than squirming in our pews and rolling our eyes, we must realize that if we are to follow Jesus, as we way we do, we must be transformed by his message and his love, and take that message of love to the world. We must be radicals ourselves and cast out the demons of injustice, greed, cruelty, and judgment that plague our world.
The time is now!
Let us go forth to love and serve our Lord by loving and serving one another.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Worthington, OH, 1 February 2015