Sermon: September 18, 2016

butterfly_greenEighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

I just want to say at the outset that I have I no idea what to make of the parable Jesus tells in Luke today. No clue. So I’ve decided not to try to address it, except in the general sense that I am going to preach about money. I will not say anything terribly original, but frankly, I don’t need to. The Bible contains more than two thousand references to money and possessions! Compare that to about five hundred references to prayer and almost five hundred references to faith, it’s pretty clear that money is a pivotal Biblical topic. So I’m just going to say what has already been said and urge us to consider what we are supposed to do about it.

While the connection between the dishonest manager and his boss is baffling to me, what is crystal clear in this reading from Luke is how Jesus wraps up the discussion: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Not that we shouldn’t, or that it would be difficult to do so, but that we CANNOT serve both God and wealth. Whatever else Jesus wanted his hearers to get out of the story about the dishonest manager, this he doesn’t leave open to interpretation: You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus is not introducing a new idea. This is an echo of what the Old Testament prophets like Amos have announced to God’s people for centuries. Consider today’s admonition from Amos: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. …I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.”

You may think this is not pertinent to your life, since you don’t perceive of yourself as one who tramples on the poor. Perhaps you regularly stock the local food pantry, donate to the Refugee Resettlement supplies, or give generously to our Needy Fund here at Trinity. God bless you for that. But the problem is not simply one of our individual goodness or negligence. The poor and needy are trampled by communal and systemic sin that the middle and upper classes have the privilege of ignoring most of the time. We are trampling on the poor right now, even without wanting to or meaning to.

How? Well, among other things, we live in a state where predatory lending is legal. If you do not know about payday lending, I invite you to read up on this breed of short-term, unsecured loan. Payday loans are often the last resort for people who are cash-strapped and have no relationship with a bank or other source of credit. The loans are made at extraordinarily high interest rates: the average interest charged on these loans nationwide—and yes, I double checked this number—is 400%! That’s bad enough, but you should know that in Wisconsin, the average interest rate on a payday loan is 565%.

Let that sink in a minute and then compare it with the typical interest rate on a credit card, which is frequently in the neighborhood of 15%-22%. And remember that the population who resort to payday lenders typically make marginal incomes and are young (between 25 and 40). They are likely to have crappy cars that need fixing and landlords who might evict them if they don’t pay on time. They are unlikely to have reliable child care or good credit.

The biggest problem with payday loans is that people who live on razor-thin budgets often have difficulty coming up with the principal when the loan is due, and then the finance charges add up, making it difficult to repay the loan. So they take out another loan. With more finance charges. You can see how brutal this destructive cycle can be. And, in the state of Wisconsin, entirely legal.

If it were up to just our good intentions, we wouldn’t live in a place where those with the least ability to pay it back are charged the most to borrow money. We wouldn’t live in a country more than 50 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from. But according to Bread for the World’s latest statistics, we do: about 46.2 million Americans live in poverty. And that doesn’t even take into consideration hunger and poverty in other nations. No matter how much we don’t want it to be true, the poor are being trampled right here, right now, and our tax dollars support that trampling. This problem is a lot bigger than we can fix by giving another can of green beans to the food pantry.

“But, Pastor, what can we do? How do we resolve problems that big?” I know, many of you are retired, on fixed incomes. Perhaps you’ve even had to take out a payday loan yourselves. We don’t have a lot of millionaires in this crowd. But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and wring our hands. When God’s people are suffering, we must act. We have to use whatever means we have to promote justice for all. One thing we can do is call for change in the oppressive systems around us. We can join our voices with Amos’ voice, with Jesus’ voice. We can raise our voices with all the voices who have petitioned people in power to remember those who are most vulnerable.

And before you start protesting that you are no prophet, remember that poor Amos didn’t plan to be a prophet either. By trade he was a shepherd. I imagine he would much rather have been about the business of tending to his flock than warning people to listen to God. It is no fun to scold people. But God opened Amos’ eyes to see what was happening around him, and what he saw made him open his mouth. How can we serve God in this time and this place? We can emulate Amos when we see corruption, and refuse to be silent.

You have a postcard in your bulletin regarding predatory lending provided by the Wisconsin Council of Churches. One thing we could do is turn those in, and demand changes in the business model of payday lenders (drop it in the offering plate and I’ll make sure it gets to them). But it that doesn’t feel right to you, you could write our legislators and/or business leaders about other financial matters that concern you. Whatever avenue we choose, we have to speak out against policies that “trample the needy” and “bring to ruin the poor of the land.” We have to make it clear that we will not stand for it. GOD will not stand for it! We must discourage greed, and prevent people with power from promoting their own welfare while neglecting those for whom they are responsible. If our elected leaders don’t act on our values and our convictions about what is just and fair, we have to do something about it. Caring for our neighbors who are poor and hungry is our primary response to a loving God. Luther once said that God does not need our money or our good works, but our neighbors do.

None of what we are facing is new, of course. Amos saw the same kind of abuse in his day—the unfair system of weights, the sneaky business person selling inferior wheat, dishonest transactions taking place all around him in the market. That’s what prompted his diatribe in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. But it didn’t stop then. In the 1500’s Martin Luther saw similar cases of dishonesty and abuse of the poor in Germany. In his explanation of the 7th Commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) he writes in his Large Catechism: “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his good as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.”

Luther’s anger prompted him to take action. With his encouragement, the very first Community Chest was founded by the town of Wittenberg, offering no or low-interest loans, providing for orphans, giving dowries to poor women who needed them to get married, and education and vocational training for poor children, among other worthy causes. But Luther did not just suggest that the town care for people who were already poor. He admonished the princes and others in power to establish laws that would prevent people from becoming beggars in the first place. He wrote a fierce document against the practice of usury and suggested to pastors that money-lenders who charged exorbitant interest rates shouldn’t be allowed to be buried in church cemeteries.

So our writing a letter against predatory lending stands in a long line of ways to resist trampling on the poor. Using the power of our voices and votes as citizens to promote the common good should not be underestimated. But where is God in all of this? Where’s the Gospel? All of this seems to be about OUR right behavior—everything we heard read and that I’ve just said—is about how we conduct ourselves, whereas the Gospel, the Good News, is supposed to be about God’s behavior, not ours. So where’s the Gospel for today?

I know people expect to find the Gospel in the New Testament, but today I found it in the appointed Psalm. Isn’t it just like God to work outside of the system, even if the system is the Revised Common Lectionary?

For me the Good News is this: “The Lord raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. God gives the barren woman a home, make her the joyous mother of children.” The Good News is this: GOD is going to take care of God’s people. Whether we correctly interpret Scripture or not, whether we act appropriately on its teachings or not, God will care for us and every little part of creation. Everything we have and everything we are are gifts from God. The stars, the trees, the oceans, our lives, our friends, every single thing in the whole cosmos is God’s! God has chosen to share it all with us, and has given these blessings into our care. But even when we are not responsible stewards of God’s gifts, God does not give us our two weeks notice or fire us,. Instead God comes to us with more blessings—abundant forgiveness, compassion, grace and hope and God’s own presence in the our midst.

God nurtures our relationships, gifts us with intelligence and creativity and resources, and says, “Here. Try again.” Not only, it seems, do we trust God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but apparently God trusts us to do the same! Let us rejoice in a God who not only desires that the whole creation flourish, but also empowers us to be active agents in bringing about such abundance.

Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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