Counting the Cost

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy
the poor of the land, saying,
“When will the new moon
be over so that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath
so that we may offer wheat for sale,
make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,
and deceive with false balances,
in order to buy the needy for silver
and the helpless for sandals,
and sell garbage as grain?”

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget what they have done.
     Will not the land tremble on this account,
and all who live in it mourn,
as it rises and overflows like the Nile,
and then falls again, like the River of Egypt?[b]

 

Luke 16:10-13
“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

***

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 

It’s one of the snappier one-liners from the Bible. One of the more quotable quotations, either in that version of in the old, King James translation: “you cannot serve God and Mammon,” which, in leaving the Greek word for wealth untranslated, turns it into a sort of living entity itself, a pagan god set up against our own. Which God will you serve? Which God will you sacrifice for? Which God will you love? God, or Wealth?

 

I imagine by now you are feeling like you’ve heard this sermon before, and I am only a few sentences in. I have struggled all week with something to say this morning that does not feel terribly overdone. Most of you could jump to my final paragraph already: serve God, not money, but since you must have money, serve God with it.

 

Perhaps I could just stop here, and we could all hit up brunch a little early. Although after a sermon like this one, I’d recommend somewhere cheap.

 

The problem, of course, is that you actually pay me to preach, and so to leave you without a sermon would be cheating you out of your money, and suddenly I’m the exact kind of greedy cheater that Amos and Jesus were so upset with.

 

So here I am, preaching a sermon on wealth.

 

Jesus was not nearly as reluctant with the topic as I seem to be. He talked more about wealth than anything else, more than heaven and hell combined, more than worship, way more than sex. It depends on how you interpret, but it’s been claimed that one out of every ten verses in the Gospels are about how to handle finances.

 

Jesus, it seems, was deeply concerned with our money. How we use it, how we spend it, how much stock we put in it. The gist of his message seems to be this: money is fragile. It’s temporary. It will only get you so far, and it’s no ticket into the kingdom of heaven. If anything, the money train takes you the other way.

 

I get that. To use another one-liner, you can’t take it with you. But why the sledgehammer? Why the constant focus? Can’t we just all agree you can’t serve God and wealth and move on to pleasanter topics? After all, through Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and grace abounds, so even if—even if God would rather us use our money differently, aren’t we covered? Can’t we be a little flexible here?

 

Amos suggests why such an attitude is so dangerous. I don’t preach the prophets all that often. Too dark, too angry. Sometimes too distant, with their obsession with current affairs now three thousand years in the past. But Amos’ words ring strong and true even today, once we parse them out. I didn’t know what I would say about them this morning, but I knew I couldn’t pass them by.

 

Amos lived and prophesied around 760 BCE, in a good time to be in business in Israel. The market was up, crops were booming, and the land seemed as secure as it ever could be. Yet Amos looked around him and saw not the glitter of a gilded age, but the rust and decay hiding underneath.

 

Amos was a farmer. He knew the value of hard work, knew the cost of his goods, knew the weight of a bag of grain or jar of figs. He was not opposed to buying and selling. He survived off the economy just like everyone else.

 

What he was opposed to was the behavior he saw from people who had committed themselves wholeheartedly to serving wealth.

 

His list of complaints is long: they grumble at the Sabbath, because a day off means fewer profits; they change units of measurement, so a pound of flour gets you less than it used to; they unbalance their scales, so your money doesn’t go as far; they mix the chaff back into the wheat, so you think you’ve bought more than you have. In other words, they’d get a terrible rating from the Better Business Bureau.

 

Dishonesty, greed, deception: not a great look for the people of Israel. Not exactly the vision God laid out for them in the Torah, in the Ten Commandments. I don’t wonder that Amos is frustrated.

 

Except Amos is more than frustrated. He’s livid; enraged. He prophecies destruction and death and God’s judgment on the whole country. And it’s because the sellers are not just cheating people of their money. They’re robbing them of their very lives.

 

Did you hear it, in Amos’ rant? These people “to buy the needy for silverand the helpless for sandals.” He’s talking about debt slavery. In ancient Israel, as in much of the ancient world, a person who was deeply in debt could sell themselves—or a relative—into slavery. As hideous as it sounds to us, the practice is outlined in the Torah: it was deemed acceptable. But Amos sees the long con. The marketplace racketeers are inflating local poverty by their unjust business practices, drawing people deeper and deeper into debt until they have no choice but to offer their own lives in return. They aren’t just raking in cash. They’re raking in lives. Real, human lives, valued as nothing and sold into the money-making machine.

 

I am sure there were people in Amos’ day who pitied the poor debt slaves, but also felt they brought it on themselves. They should have been shrewder, savvier, more frugal with their marketplace purchases. But Amos sees the whole ecosystem, and it makes him sick with rage. How are the poor supposed to catch a break, when the wealthiest control the whole process?

 

Like many of you, I have been deeply distressed by the opioid crisis here in Kentucky and across our country. And for many years, I have wished that those caught in an opioid addiction would have been shrewder, savvier, more aware. Knowing how many addictions begin with legitimate needs for relief from pain, I have wished that they could have known, somehow, when to stop. When a pill was one pill too many.

 

I have wished that parents would have locked up their medicine cabinets, that street corner drug dealers would disappear off the face of this earth. I have wished for changes in behavior from so many stuck down in the mire of this crisis.

 

But it had never occurred to me to look at the whole picture. Unlike Amos, I had failed to watch the sellers as closely as the buyers.

 

If you read the papers, you probably know the accusations leveled at opioid distributors. That“in the late 1990s when health care providers, reassured by pharmaceutical companies that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, began prescribing them more freely. The pain medications, though, were addictive, and opioid misuse increased.” [1]

 

Opioids were sold without cap or caution. In some states, according to the CDC, there were more painkiller prescriptions than people living there.  But every sale was a dollar in someone’s pocket. A pill in yours, a dollar in mine.

 

In 2017 alone, around 46,000 people died of opioid overdoses. 46,000 humans gone—parents, children, siblings, coworkers, friends, neighbors—gone. That’s the cities of Covington and Taylor Mill, wiped off the map. [2]

 

There are lawsuits currently leveled against the makers of these opioids, in the hopes that the settlement money would help redress some of the loss that opioid addiction has caused our economy. But there is no lawsuit that brings the dead back to life, and no verdict will help those already addicted put the bottle down. The damage is done, and there is mourning across the land.

 

I doubt that the CEOs and stockowners of opioid businesses set out to ruin lives. I doubt that they twisted evil villain mustaches and chortled as each new grave was dug. But I cannot help but be angry: angry at the recklessness, angry at the blindness, angry that they watched their portfolios more closely than they read the obituaries.

 

And so today I understand Amos’ rage a bit better, and Jesus’ obsession. The problem with money is not just that it tempts us towards greed, or dishonesty, or even that it pulls us away from a focus on God. The problem with money is that the reckless, whole-hearted pursuit of it leaves bodies in its wake.

 

Amos didn’t object to the marketplace. Jesus didn’t refuse to use money. But they both knew—knew intimately—the dangers therein. Jesus, who was himself sold for silver, knew how quickly we are distracted from loving our neighbors by the gleam of gold. And so it is that he reminds us, time after time after time, to choose who we will serve: God, or wealth?

And so my sermon ends about where we all expected it to. I urge you to use your money wisely, and carefully, and to serve God above all. But I urge you also, like Amos, to see the whole picture, and to pray for the addicts of all kinds, because there are those who need one more drink, and those who need one more pill, and there are also those who need one more dollar, and they will do anything to get it.

 

Wealth has a cost. Let’s count it wisely.

 

Amen.

 

[1] “Rural Realities: Opioids on Main Street U.S.A.” Presbyterians Today. March 7, 2019.

[2] “The thousands of lawsuits against opioid companies, explained.” Vox.com. September 11, 2019.

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