How Much is Enough?

A snarky old Texan, Jim Hightower, in his retirement runs an amusing podcast, “The Lowdown.”  From 1983 to 1991 he served as elected commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture.  As Commissioner, Jim dealt with not only agricultural issues but also the problems of rural Texas.  In that role he saw more than one could imagine of abject poverty.  He came to know intimately the lives of those mired in rural poverty. 

As an author and podcaster, Jim is the bane of obscene wealth and undeserved privilege.  He is a thorn in the side of stand-pat politicians whose only goal is to feed at the public trough and then retire with a silk purse stuffed to the limit with your hard-earned tax dollars.

This week, looking at the ginormous haul of Facebook developer, Mark Zukerberg, he wonders what one might do with the extra $27.3 billion Mark made this past year.  Yes, you heard that right – billion with a capital B.  Billion, in just one year!  Now, nevertheless, whether any democracy can survive when a handful of folks are awash in this sort of wealth to spend to mess with our elections – just what does one do with so much?  Besides political ads?  How much, in fact, is enough?

You can only buy so many mansions, hunting lodges in Switzerland, Rolls Royces and Picasso paintings.  None of this actually trickles down to create jobs.  No, it just sits there in a huge pile in some trust fund to waiting to generate even further riches next year because these folks have jiggered the tax code so they need divert only a small portion of this haul to the public good.

What might one buy with even a small slice of this largesse?  Jim, in this week’s podcast, highlights the transportation needs of the uber-rich.  These multibillionaires have created a boom in maximum-security vehicles.  The sort that’s right out of a James Bond double 007 movie set.  These vehicles with names like “Black Shark” and “Marauder” feature 700-hundred horsepower engines, full body armor with bulletproof glass.  On the roof, you can accessorize this vehicle with gun turrets, and for a little extra, thousand-volt door handles which will electrocute any unauthorized personnel who might be tempted to tamper with your ride in the Walmart parking lot.  They are capacious, with room for up to ten fully-equipped bodyguards.  All for the low price of over one half a million US smackaroos.  That’s what gazillionaires can spend their hard-earned wealth on. 

We are told this week that one hundred and sixty some people now own as much as half of all the people now living on the planet.  Of course, they would need something like a “Marauder” to fend off the destitute they have cheated and bamboozled on their way up the ladder of success.  (They might call it success.  It looks more like common tax-dodging criminality). Tell me, how much is enough.

Tell me, exactly how much is enough?  Such wealth is beyond the imagining of the average person in the Inland Empire struggling to make it through the week.  This poor soul can’t even afford a ticket to that James Bond flick with such fantastic gadgets. 

Is it any wonder our youth seek something better, some life that makes a difference?  It has been said that God meets us in our extremity.  The old spiritual says it all:  It’s only when we’re under the boot of Pharaoh that we cry out.  “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt Land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.”  Well, we seem to be at a final extremity as a society.  Just look at what’s happening in Down Under.  Australia’s burning up.

The whole bit about Zebulun and Naphtali in today’s readings is about the territory of the two northern tribes of Israel which suffered most from the invasion of the Assyrians 700 years before Christ, when they invaded and burnt down the neighborhood, pillaged, raped and put the population to the sword.  There was no Geneva Convention back then, not that we pay that much attention to it now.  The rules of war were those of a knife fight – there were no rules!  The population of these two tribal areas were like folks of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina went through – no help was on the way.  None ever came, and they never recovered.

So, to say that the “people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” – well, It’s beyond belief.  It’s a sick joke.  What repent and get ready? 

It should not have been surprising that those fishermen, Simon Peter and his associates dropped everything at Jesus’ summons.  Not surprising at all that they signed up right then and there on the spot.  Don’t worry about the perks and benefits.  Here was liberation from the permanent gloom and depression of what then might have been called a dung-hole country, now under the Roman boot.  Jesus not only proclaimed a New Day; he did the works of this New Dawning.  He went about “healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.”

That is the Good News our people await who live in a land of deep shadows and dark distress – those who live in fearful times.  They look to our communities of faith to not only proclaim such Light, but to live such Light. 

I’m thinking of the rural Americans whom Jennifer Silva, noted sociologist, writes about in her book on the intersection of the pain of poverty and politics “in the heart of America.”[1]

I’m thinking of Roger and Brenda Adams (not their real names, but fictitious names Jennifer gives them to preserve their anonymity).   This couple lives in a delipidated row house that assaults any visitor with an overwhelming stench of fumes from a kitty litter box when one enters.  Roger and Brenda are in their early forties and live in constant pain.  They report that they have been unsuccessful in getting any medical assistance for their ailments.  He suffers from “depression, neuropathy, diabetes, the early stages of congestive heart failure, and obesity.”  Brenda has scoliosis, hypothyroidism and PTSD from the abuse she suffered as a young girl in foster care.[2]

They barely “squeak by” on food stamps and the small help they get from SSI due to their five-year old daughter’s Attention Deficit Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  Due to a “plumbing issue” which resulted in the loss of their older children after a neighbor had complained to child protective services, Roger’s “evil mother” got full custody. 

Roger had worked as an EMT for a short time and volunteered as a firefighter until he was fired as his health deteriorated.  He now spends most of the time on a recliner after surgery for his spleen.  Because of the pain following the operation, he was prescribed opioids from a doctor “infamous for prescribing opioids.”  According to Roger, this doctor couldn’t be bothered finding out what was actually wrong with you and doing something about it.  He’d just pass out more pills.

For Roger, ask him about the American Dream, and he scoffs.  “I think it’s dying.”  Roger’s resentment of those he thinks get all the breaks is palpable.  “If I had a Confederate flag outside, people would say it was a hate crime, but if I had a gay flag, or an Islam flag, people would celebrate it.  Hell, even having an American flag is seen as a hate crime.  But that will come down over my dead body.”[3]

Roger sees himself and his family as the backbone of America, standing tall to preserve a way of life based on self-sufficiency, love of country and neighborliness.  And all around him, it’s dying.  He’s dying.  He believes that things have gotten so bad that a “race war is coming.”  Roger’s incapacitation he considers a blessing: “God made him disabled just so he ‘wouldn’t be able to go out into the world and start shooting people.’”[4]  Roger’s life motto is: “Don’t trust anyone.”

Roger, laying in his recliner, lives in a land of deep darkness – his future, his health, his fears for the country he loves.  It is the Rogers and the Brendas, in places of destitution and vanished hopes, who await a Light – some Gospel Light to shine in their deep darkness.  At least in the waning of their remaining days.  They are the ones we in the church have been commissioned to walk with.  To care for.

Just imagine — imagine the relief a visitor from Meals on Wheels or a visiting nurse might bring to Roger’s or Brenda’s depressing day.  Just imagine a visit from someone from a nearby church just stopping by to see if they were alright or needed anything.  Or just to talk.  I imagine they would be every bit as eager for such Light as were those fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, to whom Jesus called.  Every bit as eager as the inhabitants of Zebulun or Naphtali, or the residents of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans awash in mold and putrid floodwaters. 

And from where comes such help?  From where comes such Light?  Soon after Katrina struck, thousands of American young people poured into New Orleans.  They came on bus and by the carloads.  They came because they heard that clarion Gospel call every bit a clearly as did those fishermen on the shores of Galilee.  Just as distinctly as have those here at St. Francis working to set up a food pantry and establish an opioid recovery center on our church property.  They heard that call every bit as much as the person in recovery who invites a fellow addict to an AA or NA meeting.

Let us pray, that in our waning days God puts us to good Gospel use.  That is the inner yearning of every beating heart.  As St. Augustine said” “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Friends, that rest has nothing to do with taking our ease in Zion.  It is an active rest.  Students who used their Spring Break after Hurricane Katrina, to head on down to New Orleans, reported as never having worked so hard in all their lives as they did those long days in the Ninth Ward, mucking out mud from people’s houses, tearing out moldy dry wall.  Yet, they returned back home renewed and spiritually refreshed.  They returned as new persons – yes, new in Christ Jesus.  The lives they touched, the friends they made — this would become a transformative spiritual adventure that would shape the rest of their lives.

In such young volunteers sent by their churches, the Kingdom is drawing very near.  The season of Epiphany is about divinity incarnate in Jesus and in his church.  In as much as we dig in to the work given to our hearts and minds, the world sees that very same New Light in the darkness, Light that the darkness cannot overcome.  It is in some of the smallest acts of kindness or daring that life opens up to becoming a big thing.  I believe such would be the case for Roger and Brenda who many days await some smidgen of Light in their deep darkness.   Pray, we in the Church be their Light. 

And oh, by the way, cancel my order for a new Marauder.  I think God’s found a better use for those funds.  Amen.

[1] Jennifer Silva, We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Ibid, p.31.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p.33.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

January 26, 2020

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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