Creation Time 4, Pentecost 19, Year CReadings: Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15; Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16; (1 Timothy 6:6–19); Luke 16:19–31
Nairobi is a bustling city. Multi-lane roads are filled with trucks, buses, mini-buses, cars, motorcycles and bicycles. The sidewalks are full of pedestrians. Truck and bus drivers use ingenious hand signals out the side window to navigate through the congestion. Nairobi is a magnet for rural people. Sometimes drought brings rural cattle farmers to the city, desperate to get by. Young people flock in hoping to get work. There are not the resources to cope with all the newcomers. They make flimsy shacks for themselves wherever they can. An informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi is the biggest in the world. Fifteen years ago Al Qaeda blew up the downtownAmerican embassy. Now the city is again the scene of great mourning after a terrorist attack on a shopping centre in the city.
My friend Jesse is a professor there. It is a long drive out to his home in the suburbs. His property, like all the private homes in Nairobi, has a wall across the front of it. Not long before my visit, newcomers had plunked down between the wall and the road, intending to settle. Jesse explained to me that he had cleared them out before they could build. I don’t know Kenyan law, but apparently once people have put up a house, however small or rickety, they have a claim to stay. I’m not sure why Jesse told me what he had done. Perhaps he was feeling ambivalent, as a teacher of religion and a seeker of justice, about kicking people off the property. I’m grateful we don’t need a wall at our house.
Last week, Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee voted to gut the nutrition program that helps America’s poorest – citing a Bible verse as justification for his actions. SNAP benefits – formerly known as food stamps – provide temporary nutritional support to Americans struggling to get back on their feet during these hard economic times. The program provides about $133 a month to help pay for groceries for a family of four. And, while voting to take food away from nearly 4 million hungry people, Fincher collects government crop insurance subsidies for his own farm – $70,000 last year, and $3.5 million since 1999, to be exact.
One more illustration. You may have heard the story last week about a woman in Edmonton who has run into trouble with her tenant. She rented her second house to a man who offered to help with renovations as a way of covering his rent. He has now announced that he is a Freeman on the Land, a movement of people who reject all sovereignty of the state and any obligation to follow the laws of Canada or the United States. He is not paying rent, he has not made the renovation he discussed with his landlady, and in fact he has gutted the kitchen and the bathroom. “I’m not paying, and you can’t make me.”
It sounds like a nightmare for her. And on a large scale, it’s what dominant societies did to First Nations all over North and South America. Moved in with a loose arrangement about getting along, then proceeded to act like owners, and not nice owners The newcomers gutted the place. My understanding of First Nations’ traditional worldview is that no one could own land. It was the other way around—the land owned the people.
Acting like an owner. Entitled. There are different ways to say it. Or acting like a guest here. Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist, used to leave her room open when she went away from the communal house where she lived in New York. Her philosophy was that if someone else needed anything she had more than she did, they should take it. She had overcome her attachment to stuff. But when she went away, it was often to her daughter’s place in the country, where she could retreat from all the demands of her radical hospitality in town. “If you own two coats,” she used to say, “one is stolen from the poor.” But it was nice that her daughter owned a getaway upstate.
We are always trying to figure out our relationship to stuff, to ownership, to the planet. Do I own stuff, or does it own me? Many things we may have been given. They are beautiful, or sentimental, or both. I can’t just toss them, or even give them away. I go to a great deal of trouble and expense to keep my stuff dry, safe, insured. How many square feet of residence to I need? What is my life about, really?
Jeremiah is using land ownership differently in today’s story. He has been preaching doom and gloom for his nation, and now his predictions are coming true. The enemy is at the gate. Hence this land deal. Everyone knows how Nebuchadrezzar does his conquests. He drags all the key leaders away in chains back to Babylon, to take the fight out of conquered nations. Watch this, Jeremiah says. So confident am in the message of reassurance I have received, I am buying land. And I intend to use it, or at the very least, pass it on to a relative for planting and harvesting. It would be like putting a new roof on a church when the future was far from clear. A little bit crazy, and very inspirational.
One way to look at the story in Luke is to see it about the goals one sets. Do you want to be rich, own stuff? What does that cost you? What do you have to sacrifice to dedicate yourself to wealth. We need a different ethic. People may complain about the rich, the one percent, but they continue to be admired. They can donate hospital wings and opera houses. They can collect art and magnanimously give it to a gallery. What if, instead, it were embarrassing to be rich, shameful? If you own two coats…
Never mind two coats, we own a house. We pile much of our income into a mortgage, and then there is all the work to keep it up, especially in a place like this of climate extremes. It’s handy to have a house. We can offer space to others, for instance, share our good fortune. The price for housing here and in many markets is higher than it should be because of speculation. Investors buy up units not for living, not for sharing, but in the hopes of making a profit. The free market is skewed in favour of those with much.
Let’s leave bricks, mortar and mortgages for a bit, though. Let’s talk about our lives. What are the most real relationships we have: with people, or with things? Where do I place my faith? In a rate of return on investments, or a love that is just, and a justice that is loving? What are my most heart-felt values? What inspires my deepest loyalty, my greatest hope? Starting with the story in Luke, we could argue about whether there is an afterlife, and how close we think this story comes to describing it. That would be missing the point.
The point is to reflect on one’s priorities, and sit with one’s soul. That inward journey is what makes us participants with creation, co-creators. The bible is right about coveting—it can suck all the sweetness out of life. If only I had this or that… If only I owned what he or she owns. How can you turn it off? The old recipe is very reliable: count your blessings. Give thanks for all the wondrous things you do have, that you can’t buy and didn’t earn: life, breath, light, friendship, hope, intellect, love. And in this part of the world, many generations of hard work, suffering and sacrifice to give us all rights, freedoms and a social safety net, however frayed and shrunken it may have become recently.
Am I the owner of my destiny, the master of my fate the way the libertarians would have us believe? Am I somehow an independent actor, utterly free of ties and responsibilities to anyone else? Or am a guest of a much greater power than me? My highest joy as a follower of Christ is to use my freedom, my God-given freedom, to build a house for us all, so to speak: a society where people are not crippled by scarcity.
You may have heard about the research about what scarcity does to us. Not pretty. Eldar Shafir and Sendil Mullainathan wanted to find that out. They talked to people in a New Jersey mall. They talked to harvesters in sugar cane fields in India. They have run this thought experiment over and over. Do this IQ test, they ask people. Rich people and poor people do about the same. Now imagine you have an unexpected bill, for a car repair, let’s say, then do the IQ test again. If the cost is not too much, low income and high income people can still score OK. Increase the size of the imaginary unexpected bill, say ten times as big, then do the IQ test. Suddenly poor people who scored fine the first time appear to have much less intelligence when they are preoccupied with, “How would I manage if I got a whopper of a bill like this?”
Shafir and Mullainathan use the analogy of bandwidth. There is only so much brainpower. If I am devoting too much of my thinking to my immediate survival, I don’t have much or any left over for creative problem solving or other tasks. So poverty has more to do with my environment than with my capabilities. The way they put it is, “Scarcity creates a mindset that perpetuates scarcity.” Their website on behavioural economics is called ideas42. Why too much choice is just as bad as no choice. Why we have a bias toward what already exists, the status quo bias, and continue to “choose” the familiar over options that might be much better for us. Church people have known this last feature of human life for a long time. The old chestnut is that the seven last words of the church are: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
Here at this church, we’re trying to free up our minds, be open to the leading of the Spirit, as we say. Is the way we’ve always done church the right way just because we’ve always done it? Can we escape from scarcity thinking that gobbles up so much of our bandwidth? We don’t have to do things the same just because we’re used to them. We don’t have to spend, or give, the same old way just because it’s a pattern. We don’t need this building, or any building, to be the church here in this part of the city. Or do we? Is having a building, maybe even this building, crucial to our mission, our purpose?
We are passing through. We have a little time in the grand scheme of things to thank our host for all the good things spread out on the table of our life, to dance and sing in time to the rhythm of the Holy Mystery, to invite others to the great banquet of life. Thank goodness for all our many blessings.