God’s Economy (part 1): Abundance and Equity

Our Biblical stories this morning, by accident or design, touch on a common theme: economics. The story of Moses and God’s manna from heaven may not deal directly with currency, but God’s provision is the clear message of the story. Jesus’ parable about the workers and the employer makes an economic connection pretty obviously. Jesus was pretty direct about economics. “Give us this day, our daily bread.” There’s an economics stake in this life of faith we practice. This morning, we’re beginning a sermon series on God’s economics. We’ll begin today, pause next week to bless some animals, and pick up where we left off on October 8. In this first sermon, I plan to present two perspectives that I believe at least partly characterize God’s economics: abundance, and equity.

Abundance

Walter Brueggemann is a deeply respected Biblical theologian with ties to St. Louis. He received his PhD from Saint Louis University and his Divinity Degree from Eden Seminary, where he later served as academic Dean. Some of Brueggeman’s most influential work is in the Biblical description of God’s abundance over and against human perceptions of scarcity.

Brueggeman argues that for the first 46 chapters of the Bible, we hear of God’s extravagant abundance. God is lavish in creation. God creates more than God’s creatures need to survive. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God says. There’s room, there’s plenty. This abundance continues through the sojourn of Abraham and Sarah, making them and their descendants a blessing to all the people.
This blessing, this abundance, takes a sharp left turn in the 47th chapter of Genesis. Listen to Brueggeman describe chapter 47:

Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land. So Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.”

Because Pharaoh is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph.

And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves. And that’s how the children of Israel become slaves — through an economic transaction. (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World).

As we know, the people Israel eventually escape Pharaoh. Last week we followed them through the Sea and out into the wilderness. While they have left Egypt behind, that culture of scarcity is still hard to shake. Out there in the Wilderness, they grumble and complain. They miss the storehouses of food. Moses tells them that God will provide. God sends bread from heaven, Manna.

Manna: That Hebrew word translates “what is this?” What is this stuff? God’s people have been so shaped by Pharaoh’s scarcity that they don’t know what it is to receive bread they didn’t pay for, to receive a gift from God, to know God’s abundance. And they don’t know how to trust that God will provide. Despite Moses’ warning, they try and store the manna.

When Foster Care parents are trained, they learn to watch kids closely at the dinner table. Many foster children, even in St. Louis, come from hungry homes. Often for weeks after they arrive, care providers have to very patiently clean out the kids’ pockets after meal times. These children have learned to hoard food. When there were calories available, when the cupboard is full, they know they should save some for later, when they would be hungry. It takes weeks, sometimes months, for kids to trust they will consistently be fed, no matter the time of the month.

When you have learned scarcity, it can be hard to unlearn.It takes practice to trust abundance. Again and again the Bible tells us, “there is enough, more than enough.” God has provided enough food, clean water, and other necessities for all of humanity. No one should go hungry. But people do go hungry every day. Those of us who live in the developed world, who might stand to loose a few pounds (let’s be real), have a hard time hearing these words. I am not here to scold you. I don’t want to be like that nagging mother who says, “eat your food, there are children starving in…” (you fill in the blank). It really isn’t that simple.

Because really, even when you have enough to eat, Pharoah’s scarcity mentality can have an effect. We receive marketing messages almost 24/7 telling us we don’t have enough, we are not enough, we can’t do enough, unless we purchase these new shoes, or that new computer, we won’t be enough.

How do we practice abundance? How do we move away from scarcity? The sociologist Brene Brown, an Episcopalian, does research on questions related to shame and anxiety. She specifically studied a group of folks who emerged in her research. This group could be categorized as folks who defy the norm. They are not anxious about money. They are not anxious about whether they have enough. These folks, according to Brown, came from every economic strata. What unified them was their lack of anxiety. The researcher calls this group: “whole-hearted.”

What made this group different, she found, the one thing they had in common was a practice of gratitude. Note, that’s not an attitude of gratitude, but a practice. When anxiety came knocking them, they had a practice that helped them to pause, to get perspective, and to give thanks. All of us, all of us, have so much for which to be thankful. When scarcity comes knocking, what is your practice? How do you pause and give thanks?
God says, “you are enough. You are more than enough. I created you as a blessing. Go and bless somebody.” If you are anxious about money, join the club. We live in a society that breeds that anxiety, even among the wealthy. But God created us for a different relationship with economics. God created us for abundance.

Equity:

The early laborers who grumble in today’s parable, they are not moving from a place of abundance. It’s easy to judge them. On the one hand, I feel for them. The pay seems unequal. Yet, I would argue, this story teaches us about equity. I have to confess, I have not always had the same reading of this parable. my reading of this parable has shifted a great deal over the last few years.
Growing up, hearing Jesus’ story about the latecomers who receive a full days wage, I always thought this story was about Jewish/Gentile relations. In the early church there was a debate about whether you had to be a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian. That’s why Paul’s letters make us cringe talking so much about circumcision. I always read this as a metaphor for Jewish/Gentile relations. But in my first year of ordained ministry, that reading had to take a back seat to the economics in this story.

In my first parish I served a Latino Congregation. I remember the September when this story came up well. Many of the members of my congregation were undocumented immigrants. For the sake of this specific story, I’m going to call one member Juan. Juan and I had spent quite a bit of time talking to a lawyer through that late summer and early fall. Juan had worked a construction job with a local contractor, but when payday came, the contractor told him to scram. When Juan said, “we agreed on a wage,” the contractor threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rent was due. Kids were hungry. Juan had worked, but this employer had exploited his labor. Juan was never paid, and he was having a hard time finding work again. Meeting with the attorney was a dead end as well. The brokenness of our immigration system means that millions of laborers have no protection from their employers.
Having spent time talking through Juan’s story with an attorney that month, when I sat down to write my sermon, this parable really presented itself differently. For the first time I saw the story as a teaching about God’s economy of equity. In God’s economy there is enough work for everyone. And in God’s economy everyone receives a wage that allows them to provide for their family. Our reaction to this vision of equity can be strong, and strongly negative. “Why are they getting more?”

There’s a difference between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same. We need more equality in this country, but we also need equity. Equity is economically important. Equity means making sure everyone has the same chances. This parable makes us question the wisdom that everyone is able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is a certain danger when those of us with wealth begin thinking, “I worked hard for what I have” or “I got mine.” We may be adopting blinders to an inequitable system of advantages.

We are seeing in our city a struggle over the meaning of equity.  Do children of different races, different classes, grow up with equitable opportunities? Do we all get the same chances when we encounter law enforcement? Study after study show: Black men are more likely to be found guilty of a crime, more likely to serve jail time, more likely to be denied parole. Black children are more likely to attend an underperforming school, to know domestic violence in their family, to know hunger. Systems like these self-perpetuate. They have inertia. Unless an intervention is made, the ground will remain uneven.
This week we have seen a series of economic protests. Activists have shouted: “If we don’t get it, shut it down” and “you kill our kids, we kill your economy.” Yes, the Stockley verdict was the precipitating factor that led to the anger in the streets, but the anger is deeper. The anger is about a lack of equity. We may have laws that protect equal opportunity, but we are not all standing on the same structures that help us to clear the bars on the way to success.

This week Marc and I ended up the poster children for the protest somewhat inadvertently. On Tuesday afternoon we, along with some lay leaders and other Episcopalian colleagues, attended an Interfaith Prayer vigil for Justice and Peace, organized by the office of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. Like good Episcopalians, we were standing at the back of the crowd. I’m looking at you back pew. Then some of the black clergy decided we needed to pray with more than our words, we needed to pray with our feet. At the end of the service they pushed through the crowd, grabbed the clergy at the back, and marched us to City Hall. The last shall be first got a new meaning.
I wasn’t comfortable with all of the protests I attended this week. The news keeps talking about “protest organizers.” I think organizer is a bit of a strong word for many of these actions. They’re not very organized. There is a difference between a crowd and a movement: a movement is going somewhere. A movement means that you have concrete proposals, and you are acting to bring them about.

If the protests lack of organization made me a little uncomfortable, the police response scared me. Last weekend and this weekend we have seen officers injure and abuse those who are being taken into custody. Including clergy, including an air force officer, including journalists. Do not hear me say that I am anti-police. I have several friends who are officers. I respect many of the policewomen and men I know. I pray for them often. We live in a society where gun violence is out of control, and officers put their lives on the line every day. If we want to change police behavior, we could start by changing our relationship with guns. Still the documented behavior in this city of officers of the law toward peaceful protestors has been atrocious and illegal in many instances. As citizens of St. Louis City and County, we deserve better.

The action that made Marc and me accidentally famous on Tuesday afternoon was the most organized I’ve seen, and the police presence was calm. The officers protected our right to assemble and to free speech. They did their job. As I shared in our weekly email, I was particularly moved by the words of my colleagues: The Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould. She spoke about the peace that we seek, the shalom of God, that Hebrew word means both peace and wholeness. She spoke about wholeness, and it brought tears to my eyes. She said, Missouri as a state came into being by compromising. Missouri became a state by compromising the identity of black people, by holding them as slaves. We don’t have streets named after the enslaved Africans that LaClede and Chouteau brought with them as they founded St. Louis. We began with inequity, and, if you look at the statistics, the inequity persists.

God’s economy is one of equity. God provides enough, more than enough, for us all. In God’s economy there are plenty of jobs, there is plenty of wealth, so even those who don’t find a full days work can be paid enough to bring home the daily bread. This parable continues to challenge us today. How do we really provide equitable opportunity? How do we make our economy and our education system work so that all St. Louisans have access to the abundant life?
When we speak about economics, there is a great deal at stake. Life and livelihood. God’s economy does not look like our economy. Where we struggle with scarcity, with anxiety that there will never be enough, God provides abundantly. And God invites us to work for more equity, so that regardless of the color of your skin, or the profession of your parents, all might know God’s abundant blessings in this life. Amen

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