The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 26, 2010
Luke 16:19-31, I Timothy 6:6-19
In many congregations, these weeks of early fall aren’t so much leaf season or back-to-school season as annual pledge season. Parishioners are in the midst of committee meetings and of coffee with the pastor to talk about what they or their family are able to promise towards the church’s budget for the next year. Helpfully, the biblical texts appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary during pledge season line up perfectly with the series of parables in Luke’s gospel on poverty and wealth, providing lovely biblical injunctions for, as it has become called, “the sermon on the amount.” At the Princeton University Chapel, we are blessed to have our financial needs met by the generosity of earlier Princetonians of faith, and our Sunday offerings go completely to charity. I like to think that we simply get to hear what the parables will say to us – and yet, if we listen, they will make us uncomfortable indeed, without the subliminal message to pony up a commitment to the congregation’s budget.
It’s easy to hear parables like the one about Lazarus and the rich man and say, “Phew – I’m not rich! I could always be more generous, of course, but I’m not the wealthy person who’s the subject of this story.” I have news for you, though – we are rich. We are the rich. Now, you may be thinking, “Everybody else here may be rich, but not me. I’m safely middle or lower class.” I say to you again, you – we – are rich.
I don’t qualify as rich by whatever income guidelines are used in the United States – however many hundreds of thousands of dollars put one into the category of “the wealthy.” But I am rich. I spoke from this pulpit two weeks ago about a trip I’ve just made to Nicaragua and Honduras, a trip that reminded me that we in the developed world are all rich. OK – I’ll make an exception to that for anyone in this chapel whose family earns less than the U.S. poverty level and any international person whose family qualifies as poor in their home country. It’s hard to swallow for most of us – the idea that we are rich. I’m resisting it right now as I speak about it! I know many people who have a lot more than I do. My kids, who are in middle school, have told me on a couple of occasions, “Mom, our friends say our house is small.” It’s true – many of their friends have significantly larger homes. I try to explain that their parents have more lucrative professions than our dual-clergy-parent household. I also try to convey that while some people have more wealth than we do, the overwhelming majority of the country and the world’s people do not. Our house is small compared to the McMansions everywhere, yet it is enormous compared to the dwellings that the overwhelming majority of the earth’s people call home. We really are the rich.
While in Nicaragua several weeks ago, our group did an exercise in which we took the equivalent of two U.S. dollars to a market and bought a day’s worth of food. The average Nicaraguan income is $2 per day. The average Nicaraguan household is 6 - 8 people, often multi-generational. We split up into groups and did our shopping and then regrouped to find that… we each had been able to buy very little food for 40 cordobas - some rice, some dry red beans, maybe an onion or tomato for flavor. Three meals apiece for 6 - 8 people? Our little bags of food? They would have been small meals indeed. And then there are all the other expenses of living as well – housing costs – rent, electricity money for those who have electricity, bus fare to one’s job, clothing, especially for growing kids – not a closet full of clothes, but an outfit or two for each person, an antibiotic for the person who gets an infection and fever, school supplies. It’s not enough to live on.
We visited a foreign-owned factory, one in which the workers made the equivalent of $4 per day – twice the national average. Does this make them middle class? Not at all – it means that they live in poverty rather than extreme poverty. As one economist with whom we met put it, “They make just enough to survive intact and come back the next day to work.”
We really are the rich. We live with a kind of wealth unimaginable to most of the world’s people. That doesn’t make us bad – that’s clear from our two scripture readings today. But it gives us certain choices regarding our conduct. Timothy was the young assistant whom the Apostle Paul left to oversee the growing church in Ephesus that he, Paul, had built over three years. Even today, a visit to the ruins of Ephesus gives a strong picture of the wealth that certain sectors of that merchant seaport enjoyed. Listen to the Good News to the rich of Ephesus and Princeton as written to the disciple Timothy: “As for those in the present age who are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” Giving, sharing, good works - yes, let us do them! And may each of these labors result in economic justice and equality. Let us work so that all may have “the life that really is life.”
I’ve titled this sermon “Having” as an homage to a fine book of that title edited by a former colleague at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Bill Schweiker. “Having” – the very word encapsulates so much. The project, I think, for those of us who are rich is to be able simply to say, “I have all I need. I… have… all… I… need.” The advice to Timothy is as true today as 2,000 years ago – when people have some wealth and advantage, they/we decide that we need more yet . Contentment , says scripture – contentment with whatever we have – that’s what we need. We need to be able to recognize, “I have all I need .” Not all I want – having begets more wanting – but all I need . As the Letter to Timothy says, in so many words, we each came into the world with a bare bottom and a soul that reflects the glory of God, and that’s how we’re going to leave it. The choice before us is how we spend the years in between.
The parable in Luke’s gospel also has marvelous instruction to the rich, as well as the poor. Wealth is not the rich man’s sin but indifference , indifference to the suffering, to the reality of others. Perhaps his wealth encased him, the rich man, and prevented his even noticing poor Lazarus. Wealth can be so isolating, so inwardly focused, so absorbed in itself, can’t it, my fellow rich people? Living with this text in recent weeks, I’ve been asking myself which things I am indifferent to. I worry that I, like the rich man of the parable, simply don’t see the poor - don’t see the marginalized. I don’t share their situations, so I don’t notice it in my midst. My family gives money to many a poverty-alleviating cause, but there is plenty more I can do in terms of my generosity, my solidarity, my service, and my compassion.
I’ve been asking myself the same question this week professionally in regards to indifference: are there things that my professional privilege has walled me off from, have kept me from attending to? One thing leaps immediately to mind – the controversy over Park 51, or Cordoba House, or as it is more popularly known, “the Mosque at Ground Zero.” This Islamic cultural and program center in lower Manhattan has been seized upon by extremely conservative political and religious interests that have declared it an affront to the memory of the victims of 9/11 and to the sensitivities of their loved ones. But there’s so much more – many of these same voices have gone on to warn of an “Islamicization of America.” Muslims are taking over! “They” are a monolithic bloc of people, the ones who collectively perpetrated 9/11, or so the demagogues would have us believe, so we wouldn’t want that! They all kill non-Muslims! The rhetoric has become so extreme, so hateful – I guess I kid myself when I think that such polemic about a newer immigrant group isn’t possible in 21st century America. It’s happening.
And I have been indifferent – haven’t said anything until now. Better late than never? “Who is my neighbor?” Some of our neighbors are Muslim, and they’ve been the subject of such hateful invective. We’ve developed a distaste for public intolerance of prejudicial, discriminatory, stereotyping speech about other American minorities of various kinds. Apparently, anti-Islam, or Islamophobia, is still a very respectable prejudice, and even those who are determined to resist it have taken a long time to name such invective for what it really is. Sadly, the languages of manipulated patriotism and of fear-mongering have always been an effective smokescreen for prejudice.
I think that Cordoba House is exactly what lower Manhattan needs – a center for religious vibrancy, community-building, and interfaith cooperation. I think that each religion needs a center near Ground Zero – that we redeem that tragic site by locating there our various institutions that say “no” to extremism and to any violence. I’ve visited Dachau, a place where Christians exterminated Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, and pastors who resisted the Nazification of their churches, and where Christians have since built chapels to remind themselves of their sins and to be reminded never to commit such sins again, whether or not we contemporary Christians feel any responsibility for the exterminations of World War II. We need religious spaces on and near the places that have become holy ground because of the enormity of the suffering there. We shouldn’t just tolerate Cordoba House, we should welcome it, and proactively partner in its programming.
Yes, when it comes to our scriptures’ teachings on wealth and indifference, I am grading on a curve – I am looking at the totality of global affluence and (correctly, I think) calling us the rich, the powerful. If we don’t grade ourselves on a curve of money, power, and influence, we may well absolve ourselves of the responsibility to notice and to end the suffering of the poor and the despised around us, we may latch on to the desire to acquire ever more stuff, we may fail to be the disciples Christ died for us to be, and so never enjoy the life that really is life.