Scripture Reading for March 20, 2011

Micah 6: 9 – 15

The voice of the Lord cries to the city  (it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
Can I forget* the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? 
Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your* wealthy are full of violence; your* inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
Therefore I have begun* to strike you down making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil;
you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.

James 5: 1-6

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure* for the last days. 4Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

Economic injustice and inequality are growing in America today.   The rich are, indeed, getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.   Given that the Bible has many times more passages devoted to economic morality than to sexual morality, it is altogether appropriate that churches examine the economies that surround them and offer fair critiques of these economies.  

 Questions to Consider:

1.  What are your views on wealth?   How do you think God views wealth?

2.  In what ways is economic inequality a theological problem?

3.  How has poverty or wealth affected your life?   

4.  In the passage from Micah, God says to the rich:  “You shall eat, but not be satisfied.”   Do you have personal experience with this dynamic?

5.  What is the root of the complaint in the passage from the Letter of James?              

    

Rev. Dr. James  Gertmenian 
Senior Minister

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18 Responses to Scripture Reading for March 20, 2011

  1. Peter Heegaard says:

    An uplifting sermon clearly presenting the risks to us all of wealth disparity. Worth much more discussion about the causes of the disparity and then possible solutions steps to close the wealth gap. My initial thoughts with respect to the top 400 is to show the risk of eventually having such disparity that social unrest destroys that which even the very rich hold dear. Progressive tax policies would help. My thinking with respect to the 150 million at economic disadvantage is to strongly support those initiatives that help build equality, self sufficiency and wealth namely preK-12 education excellence, affordable housing, eliminating racism, job skill training and grass roots community building. We are blessed in the Twin Cities with many non-profits helping to close the gap.

  2. Joan Smiley says:

    When I first saw that Jim’s sermon would be building on words of the prophet Micah, I thought “oh how reassuring”. We will hear the stirring words that are familiar to many found in Micah 6:8 where it is said,”And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
    I had wrongly assumed the lesson chosen. However, the words and admonitions in the selected verses of Micah 6:9-15 and James 5:1-6 are profoundly thought provoking in regard to Sunday’s sermon’s topic: God and Wealth.

    I have read through the comments posted thus far and find that there is much wisdom and understanding already shared by Plymouth members in response to the questions to be considered. Nevertheless, some brief comments on my understanding of wealth and responsibility.

    We have a treasury of writings with truths and practices that encourage/ask for our compassionate assistance to people in times of trouble. Our access to technology allows us to enjoy numerous opportunities to discover information and communicate with others all over the world as well as with those near and dear to us. Moments of reflection easily reveal our privileged status and invite us to extend our concern for people throughout the world.

    Actions to further these goals include the sharing of our strengths and a commitment to the principles of justice and compassion. Would that we could accept the need for informed and caring people to live more humbly while also promoting greater attention to our greatest resources for the future–our children, through quality education and in sound families.

    Let’s not resign ourselves to the despair of dwelling on all that is wrong with the world. Let us encourage each other to believe in the good that is possible when we see wealth in terms of our ability to help build up the community and to contribute to the quality of life of others.

  3. Tim Fremouw says:

    Re: What are your views on [economic] wealth?
    The earth does not belong to us. We are part of creation, not its owners. We are called to make the world a better place. Our actions should contribute to the common wealth of all.

    Re: Economic inequality
    Clearly, it is wrong to live in luxury, while other starve. But where do you draw the line? At what point does economic inequality become too severe? In our nation, the average wealth of the top 1% of our families is well over 1,000 times the average wealth of the bottom 50%. Even within our own country, the gap is far too large.

    How has poverty or wealth affected your life?
    I grew up in a small town the 1950s and 60s. My father was a common laborer, who had not graduated from high school, but eagerly read a prized set of encyclopedias, from cover to cover. By community standards we were poor, but we had a garden, canned food, and although it was close sometimes, we were never hungry or unsheltered. Community resources such as the church, public school, band, orchestra, the public library, lakes, plenty of country roads for biking, two nearby college campuses, and friends made us feel welcome and wealthy. Perhaps that is why I have never felt the need for a large house or a fancy car. 😉

    Nonetheless, we all have our hopes and dreams. The challenge is to act justly and walk humbly with God as we carry them out. One way to reduce inequity would be to focus more on our “common wealth” – working together to create resources, tools and knowledge, for the benefit of our community and future generations. [The “open source” movement on steroids.]

  4. Randall Rogers says:

    First let me say, as was stated from the pulpit last Sunday, I do not recognize a God that sits quietly (just around the corner from where I contemplate a selfish or dishonest act), and waits angry and spiteful to pounce upon my indiscretion; to embarrass me or humiliate me before my peers and the Self. I reject that God.

    Having said such, Micah says again:

    . . .Therefore I have begun* to strike you down making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.

    When I read the headlines of the day, I consider the possibility I that I have been wrong about God. These verses describe with frightening accuracy the United States I see right now. Do we not eat (constantly) and remain hungry? Do we not try to save yet always fall short? And why is it after 9/11 we don’t ask when enough is enough? My father, a Korean war veteran, would not for a moment consider that WE had done something that could cause us to be so reviled in the world. While I do not condone the attack, could that not have been the sword of God destroying our sense of self and confidence in the world? Well, not if we are unwilling to consider such things.

    I know precious few people who live day to day, content with precisely what they have. The few that are content really stand out. Rather, it seems to me we want to consume everything, we are encouraged to consume everything — remember the potato chip ad that suggested “eat them all, we’ll make more”? We seem to believe we deserve everything. We have even created a God that suggests we deserve everything. We pray for wealth, for jobs, for mortgage rates. Pray for the status quo. There are, of course, scriptures that suggest otherwise, but we don’t hear them very much. You see, too often the Bible is a book of interpretation and discretion. We see what we want to see. How long since there has been any collective sense of satisfaction?

    So, what if this Old Testament God is alive and working here right now? For all we have, we act as though we are lacking something, but it doesn’t occur to us that it might be God we are lacking, as well as a sense of who we really are and what our place is in the world.

    How is this possible in a nation born of the belief that “all men are created equal?” How many of our daily decisions suggest a different and more compelling truth? We believe we deserve to buy luxuries at Target while the people that create these things — in worlds far from here — survive on a few dollars a day. What kind of equality is that? Every day we make dozens of decisions that protect the inequities of the world. We are complicit.

    The question becomes one of investment. Am I invested? What am I willing to do, on a daily basis, to make the world different. Am I willing to stand up to injustice? If I am not, then I am complicit. It is a sin of omission, but a sin nonetheless — if one believes in sin.

  5. Charles Matson Lume says:

    I’ve sat now for 30 minutes thinking of these verses, considering their complexities and some of the baggage that I understand within them.

    Perhaps moving out in a different direction might help me see better.

    My mentor, and poet, Gustaf Sobin, stated that poems could release (liberate) a kind of energy. This happened in a poem via a series of well placed images. Indeed, if the relationship of one image to the next could gain momentum and sustain its current – we, the readers, might experience the aliveness of the poem.

    Now I will try to connect the poem metaphor to the scriptures.

    Perhaps some of the wealthy are creating stasis/death by selfishness, by not creating momentum or sustaining the current of life. Perhaps by their “laid up treasure”, they create violence to life. Perhaps the anger I hear in the scriptures is God’s fury at individuals who have not keep the current moving. That this massive poem God has made is diminished by someone creating stasis in it. “The poem is verbal, rather than nounal.” (GS)

    Charles Matson Lume

  6. Cynthia Callanan says:

    Having grown up in poverty, I was always taught that we are rich in family, we are rich in knowing that we are loved and that we have people who will back us when we are down. My dad told the story of when he was down on hard times, and asked a family member for $20 to buy some groceries for his family(wife and young ones, perhaps I was the infant in this story), and he was refused. Yet he stood proud and walked away from the refusal, and worked hard to feed his family.

    Sometimes even those who you think will back you when you are down, will disappoint you, but that is where the loving souls (Christians?) who provide services like the Food Shelf or Third Sunday Meal make such a difference. They may not realize that what a difference their small effort makes to the person who is in need.

  7. Blog Editor for Hazel Lutz who posted this on another page of this blog:
    I want to clarify two things in relation to my experience of living at a much lower standard of living for a number of years in India.
    1. The experience of lowering my standard of living with regard to material possessions and comforts was successful in that I became comfortabel with it eventually, but it did involve a learning process. My upbringing had trained me to expect a certain level of comfort, and grown my body’s muscles and bones to fit certain types of furniture, etc. The point is that what I considered a basic minimum comfort level and standard of living is something developed from habit and training. It’s not something that is natural. If one is trained to a high standard of comfort, there is a lot of pain and suffering in learning to live closer to the ground. My first year in India was very painful. But I did achieve a high comfort level eventually.

    2. I said earlier that I believe that poverty/wealth is about relationships between individual people; it’s less about the material things themselves. I say this in the context of what my conception of God is. For me God is the space and time within which individual humans discuss and negotiate our individual relationships to each other and to the whole that is humanity, and the whole that is the universe. God stands in for the whole that is humanity–a whole that as individuals we are always struggling to become aware of within our limited, finite, separated parts of that whole. God is the place we go to find our connection to the whole of humanity and the universe.

  8. Jerry Mindrum says:

    Many social ills, such as crime, teen pregnancy, violence and many others , are associated with poverty. I’ve many times heard that these and other suffering is due to sin, i.e. original sin. While I acknowledge sin, I have to accommodate causative factors. A book I keep near the center of my bookcase next to the Bible is “The Spirit Level” by Wilkinson and Pickett, two British epidemiologists. They convincingly associate social/economic inequality, rather then poverty alone, with the above and many other dysfunctions. With the above scriptural passages it is also a theological problem.

  9. anne seltz says:

    As a PK I grew up with a good house/home, enough food, little money and the perception from the parishoners and my parents that we had enough. We were also expected to dress neatly, be educated, and give our talents to the church.

    Because I went to a ‘sinful’ university, not a Lutheran one which would have been free, I worked my way through both undergraduate and graduate school. However, neither of those times did I feel deprived. My only limitation was that I didn’t have much time for extracurricular. My entire professional career has been joyful and rewarding in many ways. I seldom considered money in my decision making as I was earning enough. The only time I advocated for more money was when I did not want my profession to be demeaned or treated less than a similar profession.
    I have been generous with my time for others but, frankly, only because I enjoyed it. I don’t feel I have suffered in any kind of martyerdom way (sorry that is clumsy).
    So what are my attitudes on wealth? I abhor the gap between rich and poor in our country even though our poor are wealthy compared to many countries. I cannot support the high salaries for CEOs. I am willing for my daughter to be on welfare. I accept Medicare with joy. Because I have minimal retirement monies, I am pleased to be able to continue to supplement my SS money. And I want everyone to have those benefits.
    I have no clue what to do about the poverty issue in our community much less the world but I do believe that God wants us to care and cure and perhaps a church can do that in some way. (the foundation is already doing that)

  10. Alan Anderson says:

    God of the Bible castigates the people’s toleration of poverty and the misguided use of wealth and power, rampant in the world and America today.
    How will we meet God’s demand for repentance and the creation of a just society?
    First we must look for the basic causes of our dysfunctional society.
    Retired MIT professor Jay Forester, father of systems dynamics, says in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2009, that you can’t discuss what caused our sustainability crisis without saying that population is very high. The other factor is the industrialization that has enabled our high level of consumption.
    Unless religion addresses these basic problems actively, it fails us.
    To do so religion must help develop a social structure that deals with these problems.
    Theology is uniquely qualified for this task, as it considers the nature of man.
    Reinhold Niebuhr examines the creation of a just society with great insight in
    “Moral Man and Immoral Society”. He deals with the strength of man’s ego that strives for wealth and power, and how we must counterbalance it. Wendell Berry holds that we must restore our more self-sufficient local communities. I believe the concentration of global economic wealth and power will inevitably lead to authoritarianism or destructive anarchy.
    Without a new awakening mankind’s accelerating spiral of disaster will continue.
    Let us at Plymouth be one of many local groups around the country developing a new consciousness of and action towards a more just community,

  11. Greg Davidson says:

    1) What are your views on wealth? How do you think God views wealth?
    What are the Biblical verses?: ‘Of those to whom much is given, much is expected?” “For how you treat the poor, so shall God treat you?”
    2) In what ways is economic inequality a theological problem? My belief, in recent decades in the US, the ‘prosperity gospel’ has reframed for many how The Creator shows appreciation for wealthy people, in a belief that “God is a loving, forgiving God who will reward believers with health, wealth and happiness.” I don’t believe our ‘reward’ is this directly related to our wealth or efforts.
    3) How has poverty or wealth affected your life? I struggle with this daily: I have an upper middle-class job that thankfully provides great health insurance, that pay’s my monthly prescription costs of over $3,000 a month…. I know people in Naples, FL who are concerned they may need to sell their second home so they can continue to live in retirement (not thinking of the benefit of being able to receive interest deductions on that 2nd home). Recently I met a high-school senior from North Mpls, who said he really liked Chemistry and Biology but ‘knew’ he can’t get into medical school. He’d never heard of a Physician’s Assistant. I ask myself, do many of us truly recognize our privilege of connections and worldly exposure that goes beyond a 30 block area? Also I recently had the privilege of bringing 15 students from the ‘Plymouth Christian (alternative) High School’ on West Broadway to the ‘new’ Guthrie theater. Only one acknowledged they’d ever heard of The Guthrie and most acknowledged they’d never be to this part of town. I struggle with ‘how well do I treat my brethren.’
    4) In the passage from Micah, God says to the rich: “You shall eat, but not be satisfied.” Do you have personal experience with this dynamic? Yes, I’m seeing that my relationships with people are more important than ‘my life-style.’
    5) What is the root of the complaint in the passage from the Letter of James? For me it is the wording: “kept back by fraud (deceit)” and is closely related to how well we may follow (or redesign) the ‘law’ to the advantage of those with the most political influence. I’ve pretty much lost ‘faith’ in democracy of “by and for the people.”
    – Greg Davidson

  12. Jan Rabbers says:

    James pleads for a return to authenticity throughout his letter. He is reminding us to walk with God – and walk away from the trappings we’ve learned to covet. He is clearly describing the consequences when we don’t.
    But why do we stray into the temptation of wealth? I think our society has come to equate wealth with power. We amass wealth to achieve power. But when I examine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I always have to dig deeper and ask what’s motivativing the need to achieve power? In other words “Power to do what?” to assure my own security? choose my own path? be a self-sustaining individual? be a respected (or feared) authority? Or do we turn this power outward into benevolence? power to protect. power to inspire. power to build and innovate.
    What I’m struggling with in light of today’s political and social dynamics, is a lack of trust. If someone has more power than me, do I trust them with it? Do extremist political operatives really believe in the social good of all? When a wealthy CEO trickles down a paltry sum to create a park near a downtown theatre, is that meaningful benevolence? Does the evidence keep pointing to a scenario of a concentrated patriarchy of self-interested individuals? From this aspect, I would project that as the wealthy get wealthier, they may unwittingly be stirring the soup of socialism because all they’ve left us is each other.
    On the other hand, I witness astonishing beauty in millions who separate themselves from from their earned possessions in order to help others a world away in Japan, Haiti, Darfur, Curry Street. They give with such innocent willingness. With such authenticity. They walk with God. In these, I trust.

  13. Chris Bohnhoff says:

    My reading is that God views wealth as irrelevant, temporary, beside the point. Wealth in itself isn’t the issue. The main complaint in the James passage has to do with the injustice behind the wealth – the addiction to wealth, and the blindness to the circumstances of others, that it causes.

    I think that “You shall eat, but not be satisfied” talks directly to people who’re looking for purpose and comfort in material things instead of the spiritual; like hearing ‘you’re getting colder. . .’ in a game of hide and seek.

  14. Dee Halberg says:

    I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that the scriptures give so much attention to wealth and the attendant privilege that comes with it. Is there anything that brings as much angst as my relationship to the material? Do I define myself by what I am “worth”, usually comparing to those with more rather than admitting my own place of privilege?
    When I define myself in those terms I can never be satisfied and am ever in fear of losing what I might have. “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” If I lose my “treasure”, who am I? And in the society in which I live it’s easy to say say…”not much”. So I am burdened by a false sense of meaning which leads in turn to how I value my neighbor and, yes, even more my “enemy”. But, the personal and the community are interdependent therefore I start to understand why the prophets addressed the nation (“Israel”). My personal addictions certainly contribute to the health of the nation but, even if I may overcome my own false values, I am still part of the family..the community…the nation and therefore I cannot escape my obligation to the community as a whole. Does the God of justice and compassion weep as we manage to destroy ourselves , individually and collectively?

  15. Hazel Lutz says:

    Residing at a Much Lower Standard of Living:
    I am lucky to have had the experience of living for 5 years in India, a generally poor country. For more than three of those years, I lived at an Indian lower middle class standard of living. That meant I had enough to eat, a secure roof over my head, medicine & doctors when needed, and money for occasional food treats and entertainment. It also meant a vegetarian diet with meat only quarterly. It meant getting fruits and vegetables only seasonally. It meant washing my clothes myself by hand. It meant polishing lantern globes and filling them with kerosene every night and cooking over coal fires or kerosene stoves. It meant drawing water from a well, walking to many locations, and enduring cold or hot weather without heat or air-conditioning. Still, at this lower (for me) standard of living, I had neighbors who were jealous of what we (I and my former husband) had.

    In addition, I spent one year living with my former in-laws in the village at a peasant standard of living. I bathed in a pond, cooked over a wood fire, actually did some work in the fields transplanting rice, and wore the same three outfits in sequence all the time—one was waiting to be washed, one was clean and ready to be worn, the third I had on.

    My clothes alone marked me as rich to my village neighbors. Some of them had only one outfit. At the pond, I watched as they wrapped a thin towel about their torso underneath their clothes, slipped off their clothes to wash them and set them out to dry, then bathed themselves. They sat by the pond afterward, waiting for their clothes to dry so they could put them back on. I won’t burden you with more details of my experiences living at these two standards of living that were much, much reduced from what I had learned to take for granted in the US.

    What was interesting is how RELATIVE poverty and wealth are. It’s a relationship between people. Living in the village the thing that made me feel most poor was the fact that there were only 5 women in the village with whom I shared a language (Hindi). I missed the people interaction that year. I couldn’t learn to speak Mundari fast enough to develop relationships with the other women.

    What I Learned:
    I want, rather, to share what I’ve learned. Poverty and wealth is not primarily about material culture items. Rather it is about the relationship between people who are wealthy or poor. I lived with less material culture ‘wealth’ in India than what American poor people have. Yet I and my companions did not feel ourselves to be poor. I and my companions were living good lives, and we found many ways to be happy, laugh, and enjoy ourselves.

    The reasons for not feeling poor were several: 1. We had more than many people around us (as well as less than India’s very wealthy classes, too), but we were not at the bottom of the very real social hierarchy in India.

    2. We had enough. Enough was basic nutrition, clothing, medical care, secure housing, water, education, chances at meaningful work, and some time and money for leisure for relaxation and rest. Families provided security in old age, and families were investing in life insurance and savings for that purpose.

    3. Beyond the basics, extra material culture is icing. Sometimes the icing can get too thick, so thick that it suffocates. That’s how I feel sometimes in the US. I feel controlled by my material wealth, as I become it’s tender. It controls my time. Tending to my material wealth gets in the way of my relationships with other people. Too much rich food makes me sick with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and over-weight.

    Public versus Private Poverty:
    I’ve also learned to distinguish between public and private poverty, with regard to the provision/availability of material culture. India is a country that is publically poor—the government does not provide enough good roads, electricity, pottable water, clean air to breath, security from violence. On my returns to the US, I am always struck by how amazing our highway systems are; they provide me with a different reason for road rage–why can’t people in India enjoy such roads? Just as a starter to improving life in all areas there.

    In response to India’s public poverty, India’s private citizens who are able supply themsevles with these commodities by installation of water-purifying systems, battery backups or generators, but there’s not much they can do about the air pollution, bad roads, or low sanitation levels out in publuic. to the extent they can insulate themselves, this more deeply separates them from those who cannot provide these things. The relationships between people get worse. Walls around rich houses are built higher, with more glass shards or biarbed wire set on top of the walls, thick locks on doors, and paid security guards and many servants to tend to the water purifying and storage, the electricity production and storage, and other tasks. Distrust of the security guards and servants further separates the well-to-do from the rest of humanity. Because the bulk of society cannot provide these things for themselves, they become favorable environments for disease and violent crime that eventually spread past the high walls, gates, and locks to affect even the well-to-do.

    I fear this is the direction that the US is going, by its “no-new taxes” mentality. If we don’t pay for public services, we will all be poorer.

    I find that the more Tom and I cut back on our expenses, and the closer to the ground we get, the better I feel about my place in the world. Low-carbon footprint, less time spent shopping, more time for people.
    Hazel Lutz

  16. Bill Johnston says:

    I wonder, in my own life, if God is pleased because of how much I give or displeased because of how much I keep.

  17. Joan Wicklund says:

    It seems to me that most of the exhortations against wealth in the Bible are those involving fraud or abuses of the power of wealth against those less fortunate. I have never been wealthy but neither have I lived in what I would term poverty. However, my life with my husband and children involved many rather large ups and downs in income as jobs evaporated due to economic realities and one took whatever job was available at the time. I have watched union members use the power of the union to oppress as well as uplift and non-union supervisors belittle employees as well as praise them. It behoves everyone to always use whatever talents they may possess and whatever dollars they may be able to spare to treat all other people with respect and to encourage talents and free expression in others.

  18. Karen Barstad says:

    I work in a bank, and in the banking business we make money when people borrow from us so that they can buy things – homes, cars, business equipment, education, etc. The more people borrow and spend, the more profitable the bank is. Without their borrowing and spending, I would not have an income, and I would not be able to make my mortgage payment, buy food and clothes, maintain my car, pay for medical care, sustain my pledge to Plymouth Church, promote the arts, work to protect the environment, etc. Oh, I can say that I don’t live extravagantly, but where is that line between practicality and extravagance? How do I know when I’ve crossed the line between “just enough” and “excessive”? If I spend $2,000 on a summer vacation, is that being reckless? Should I open my home to another person because I have an extra bedroom? On the other hand, should I travel more to support the tourist economy which is the livelihood for so many people? Should I buy more clothes so that the employees at shopping malls have dependable incomes? When Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give your money to the poor,” did he really mean that? Or was that just hyperbole? And what about those of us who have been poor? Haven’t we done our time, paid our dues? I grew up in poverty. I remember what it was like to have five dresses that I had to stretch over five school days and one Sunday without wearing the same thing two days in row. I remember when dinner would be a meal of rice and raisins, when bacon was a luxury, when laundry was done at the Laundromat, when we lived in a 12 ft. by 54 ft. mobile home. Can’t I enjoy a few luxuries now? The problem with wealth and how it might be viewed by God is that I don’t want to feel guilty about having it, but I also don’t want to let myself off the hook too easily. There is tremendous inequity in our world, and that’s a sin. What is my role in that sin? And if I have a role in that sin, what do I do about it? What does God expect of me?

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